Originally posted on Porky's Expanse blog:
With HoP focusing more on RPGs recently, and Von's new series, I thought I'd review a good starter game for sci-fi wargamers interested in setting up a roleplaying campaign.
The game is Rogue Space RPG by Fenway5. It's rules-light even by the standards of old school games, which makes it easy to pick up and keeps the focus more on the action and less on the detail of the mechanics. The basic rules and all the supplements so far are free, and each fits onto a sheet of A4 and folds into a booklet, which means you can keep everything in a miniatures case and play in the spaces around battles.
The downloads are here, found through the image at the top of the blog's right sidebar.
So how does it work? To my mind very well. The simple rules framework allows players to try pretty much anything they might want if they can imagine it, and in that sense the evocative name is a solid foundation, conjuring up all kinds of images of pulp sci-fi and space opera shenanigans, kickstarting the imagination even before the rules are read.
You'll need to know coming in that there are few limits with a system like this, but a bit of work may be needed, even if only through preparation or on-the-spot improvisation.
The first point to make is that you will need a GM, or games master, which in simple terms is a player confident with the rules who has a good idea for an adventure. The GM describes the key features of the environment, the players say what they'll do and the GM oversees the process if there is one. Rinse and repeat. Pretty much anything goes.
The second point is that the basic ruleset assumes a familiarity with common gaming concepts like 'turn' and 'level', without necessarily defining them, and so leaves it up to the players or GM to decide what they mean in practical terms. This is likely because the game has a fairly clear target reader, but also because of how compact it is.
The third, which may be obvious to many, but does bear saying for those who are new to the potential, is that you don't need miniatures, a map or any modelled terrain, but you can use them if you want, and you might find it easier with at the beginning if you're used to them. The players could still make a map of course, based on the description. If you run without, the whole thing is just visualised, which is easier than it might sound when you have a group keeping track, and given the simplicity of this particular system.
Coming to the specifics of Rogue Space, there are five basic attributes, equating more or less to ability in combat, perception, intelligence and wisdom, charisma and psyche, and mechanical skill. Together these give a sense of the range of activities the game is expected to cover, much more than just blazing gunfights, although there are those too.
The approach to stats is a very clean one, with the human baseline in any attribute being zero; the number of points above or below zero is the positive or negative modifier to related rolls. A starting character will generally end up with two to three points to allocate among the five, and one attribute can be dropped to -1 to free up an extra point.
Each character also has an archetype - Warrior, Rogue or Technician - which raises one attribute by another point. It also affects the resilience stat, Hit Points, which here can be seen as a mix of agility and constitution. Unconsciousness is possible and there are rules for recovery in different places. All stats can rise over time if a character survives.
The basic rules also have optional mechanics for luck and psionics, with ten powers, as well as equipment lists for various ranged and melee weapons and a fair few armour types. The Armory supplement has more, enough to cover a lot of pulp sci-fi concepts.
Resolution is simple. If something a character wants to do isn't a given, the player takes a test on 2D6 modified by the relevant attribute and any other factors. If there's active opposition, the opponent does the same. In combat, characters act in initiative order using HP plus 2D6 and the winner does damage if attacking. To streamline without losing variety, there are four tiers of damage, but certain weapons have bonuses. Armour works by reducing the total, and can take into account the tech level of the weapon.
If there's a substantial objective criticism with the presentation of the basic rules, beyond that vagueness in places, it's the fact that there's no system for comparative value of items, in creds for example. That said, this is addressed in the Armory supplement.
As for consistency across the supplements, you may find you need to have an earlier supplement to have access to rules for this or that element seen in a later, but again that's little trouble when you can download free and carry easily, and improvise.
If you're not sure how all that might translate into games, and especially if you've never used or been a GM, here's an example. It's one possible approach, and without a doubt not the way everyone would do it. It's aiming at a fairly high pace and leaning on rolls on the assumption there's initial dislike among players of actual in-character roleplaying.
The characters are exploring a bunker, moving down a corridor. The players agree their order - ex-special forces up front, mad scientist in the middle and alien freighter pilot at the rear. They tell the GM they look carefully round each corner. If the GM knows there's a patrol round one, player and GM roll an opposed test using the character's perception modifier to see if the guard spots the character first. If not, the characters might try jumping them, or just sneaking past, each taking a test. If spotted, the GM might agree the extractor fans are loud enough to mask the odd shot and so allow the players one turn with no attention attracted, but if a gunfight breaks out, nearby patrols move in.
Further down the corridor the characters find a door ajar, looking in on a ransacked office, and the GM describes the visible features. They search it, each taking a different area for speed and roll unopposed tests to see what they find, assuming there is anything. One of the characters tries the door of the server cabinet; the player is told it's locked and a panicked voice is heard from inside. There's a discussion, with the GM representing the hiding technician. If he's not coming out and the cabinet is flimsy, the door might be levered open with a knife, but if heavier, a test could be made, the price for failure being a cut hand, damage to the weapon or noise, or just a need to try again.
At some point a patrol approaches, and the GM asks the player whose character is acting as lookout - if any - to test to see if the characters are surprised. If not, they might barricade the door with the icy alien lobster tank, with the pushing being a single test modified by everyone involved. Whether or not it holds could be an opposed roll using the patrol's combined strength against the combined mechanical understanding of the characters. If the door is blown in or the tank knocked over, the liquid nitrogen the lobsters live in could spill and the room fill with steam, and everyone need to leap onto a desk or risk boots, feet and paws freezing to the floor. The lobsters could join the fight.
After the game the players tell the GM they want to head to the nearest den of iniquity to transmit the stolen invasion plans and find a new lower leg for the freighter pilot. At some point they add recovered health in line with journey time, agree they'll cook the lobster to save ration packs and check if anyone advanced, making any changes.
For inspiration in coming up with adventures there are two small but efficient tables in the basic rules, and one of the supplements, the Random Adventure Generator, has a basic pre-prepared adventure with a map. If you won't be importing your own setting, you could use the ideas in three more of the supplements, The Blue Priests of Pluto, Simian Stars and Pirates & Peril. Starships covers creation and ship-to-ship combat and Aliens and Androids has design rules for aliens, androids and robots, as playable characters in the case of the first two. There's also that conversion of the Rshomignggu from the very compatible Swords & Stitchery, which comes with an adventure.
In summary, it's a fun game with massive potential that keeps the entry barrier very low in terms of reading, even if you'll need to be familiar with gaming in general and willing to follow up with some of your own thinking. It has plenty of supplementary material, but works well enough with improvisation, and while it's built on fairly generic pulp sci-fi and space opera tropes, it's loose enough to be adapted to more specific universes.