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

Saturday, 20 January 2018

Disappointingly Close To The Near Heavens

The advent of the Open Gaming Licence opens up a world of publishing possibilities for both creatives and other publishers. So it is with the Cepheus Engine System Reference Document from Samardan Press which details the core rules for a Classic Era Science Fiction 2D6-Based Open Gaming System. In other words, it allows the creation of Science Fiction gaming content which is compatible with Traveller, the first big Science Fiction roleplaying game, though not set in the same background as Traveller’s primary setting of the Third Imperium. So for example, Stellagama Publishing has its own setting in These Stars Are Ours! as does Battlefield Press with Warren C. Norwoods Double Spiral War. Stygian Fox Publishing, best known for publishing the highly regarded Things We Leave Behind for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, also has its own setting in the form of ‘The Near Heavens’ of which A Life Worth Living is the first release for.

‘The Near Heavens’ offers “Hard Edged Science Fiction Roleplaying in the Near Heavens Setting of AD2151’. In the twenty-second century humanity has explored and colonised worlds out as far as Groombridge and Sirius, the limits of the authority of the Terran Associative. This is the governmental organisation which has come to regulate life on and off world as nation states shattered in the wake of a limited nuclear war in the twenty-first century. Although there are still nation state holdouts, what has replaced them across most of settled space are polities based around cultures, often fracturing out of their former states in a series of ‘Culture Wars’. These continue to this day, with some ‘Culture Wars’ actually serving as proxy wars for other polities or corporations. Such conflicts, typically low scale, offer employment opportunities for mercenaries. Interstellar travel is achieved via Jump Space, but a Jump takes weeks and requires passengers to travel in cryosleep as only Synths, or Synthetic androids, can withstand the rigours of Jump space. Passengers do not age in cryosleep, so frequent travellers are typically biologically younger than their chronological age. Space travel is not entirely safe and Jump inversion incidents, which occasionally result in the loss of passengers rather than a starship, are a known hazard.

A Life Worth Living is an introduction and scenario for ‘The Near Heavens’. It is a fairly linear affair designed to highlight various aspects of the setting and comes with a set of pre-generated player characters designed to play the scenario. They are Private Security Contractors—or mercenaries—who operate as a special operations cadre known as Black Maul. Currently on Groombridge after completing a contract, they receive messages from Terese de Sainte, an ex-member of the squad. Her messages make reference to the ‘Cabin in the Woods’, an incident on the world of Eden in the Groombridge system in which the squad was attacked by Edenite separatists and had to hold out until it was evacuated. It was a defining moment for the squad and the constant references to this incident suggest that she might be serious trouble.

The trail leads back to Earth and beyond, the mystery revolving around a McGuffin or two, both of which will remain elusive and just out of reach for much of A Life Worth Living. The plot is fairly straightforward and involves a good mix of interaction and combat as well as investigation. Whilst it has some decent moments, it does end on a downbeat note with little in the way of a decent climax. Both it and the ‘Near Heavens’ setting is supported by details of various drones and vehicles, ’Bots and Synthetics, and arms used by both the members of Black Maul and other Private Security Contractors. The description of the Synthetics includes the means to create them as characters—both player characters and NPCs—and it should be noted that one of the members of Black Maul is a Synth.

Although A Life Worth Living is designed to be played using the pre-generated characters provided, it can be played using characters that the players created themselves. They need to be mercenaries, primarily with ground combat related skills, but there are plenty options within that framework. The Game Master will need to work some of the scenario’s background into that of player characters’ background, especially to establish the relationship with Terese de Sainte. One way to do that is to stage the ‘Cabin in the Woods’ scene is as a prologue. This would strengthen the ties between the Terese de Sainte and the rest of Black Maul and so strengthen the motivations of the Black Maul squad members—that is, the player characters—to go to the help of Terese de Sainte at the start of the scenario. One of the players would have to roleplay Terese de Sainte as one of the members of Black Maul does not turn up until the closing moments of ‘Cabin in the Woods’ to rescue them. This would also strengthen the player characters’ ties to Terese de Sainte. Plus, it would work with the pre-generated characters as well as those created by the players.

Physically, A Life Worth Living is beautifully presented. The layout looks clean and the book is liberally illustrated with stunning artwork, the best of which is very well done as contemporary adverts. Unfortunately, A Life Worth Living is far from perfect. As pretty as the layout is—and it is undoubtedly pretty—look closer and it is just a bit rough around the edges. The editing, or lack thereof, is excruciating and leaves the reader wishing that time had been spent on this. It does not help that there are no page numbers and no index. For some gamers, the scenario’s linear plot may be more of an issue, but A Life Worth Living does involve a lot of space travel, going from point A to point B, and it really is an introductory scenario, so arguably, this can be overlooked.

The primary problem with the design of A Life Worth Living is that there is no explanation of the plot. Instead, the plot is explained as it progresses in the book and this is the most awkward means of presenting the plot. A summary of the plot would really have helped the Game Master prepare the scenario.

A Life Worth Living is probably the prettiest and most professional looking book ever released for use with the Cepheus Engine System, let alone for Traveller. Yet that professionalism is not carried off as far as the content is concerned. Although the it is far from unplayable, A Life Worth Living needs another edit and it needs just a little further development.