I have recently been watching more Star Trek. As with many if you I thoroughly enjoyed the reimagining of Cosmos, hosted by inheritor of the Carl Sagan legacy, Neil deGrasse Tyson. It is a stunning show.. just gorgeous, informative, optimistic and all-around pleasant. I think maybe the Information Age gave us access to all the rats and mould hiding in the corners of disinformation and obfuscation about our world, and now we hear all the more often about the horror stories that serve to make us jaded either because we can’t fix them or because there’s nothing left to fix, just wreckage to sweep up. But Star Trek is different. It is a product of the world kind of like the Victorian Age – excited about new technologies and possibilities, about globalization and the possibility of world peace. Like Cosmos, it drips with optimism. Star Trek is something I watch when I’m depressed because it reminds me (without too much nostalgia-goggling) of a time when we were a little more optimistic about the possibilities of the future, and SF was a little less nihilistic or “Grim-Dark” for lack of a better term.
Which brings me to the Mindjammer RPG, by Sarah Newton. Mindjammer reminds me of the single-minded optimism and possibility of the future in the same way that Star Trek and Cosmos do. The game’s structure and themes do so in parallel with each other, and it’s a beautiful thing. If you want to know if it’s good, I can tell you now – it’s good.
Firstly, I am a literature student, and know another one when I see one. This game is clearly Newton’s baby. She’s put a lot of time and effort into making this setting simple, balanced and effective. Good theatre is nothing without the proper stage, and I think she has it in mind to leave open-endedness, that of the Commonality of Mankind, at the forefront. She calls it Space Opera, which, as I will get to, is critical language because it points towards the theatrical aspect of playing RPGs, but more than that, it’s also a technical term for a variety of science fiction. She calls it hard SF, or at least capable of it. In other words, it can operate solely on what is scientifically conceivable, as opposed to “soft SF” which is basically Star Wars– but it can play to that too. You don’t need to know how a hyperdrive or photon rifle works, just that they do. It doesn’t deal with complex ethical or philosophical questions raised by the age, technology or discoveries of the setting- it’s just re-telling a lot of classical good vs. evil stories we’ve told each other for centuries, but in space! That’s what makes it a space opera. Rarely will you will find a space opera built with hard SF elements, but Mindjammer is designed to support space operas in either a hard SF or soft SF environment.
The game has boiled down the setting to several critical elements, foremost being that there is a stable human society that is exploring the galaxy. Awesome! There is no more money, there is food and needs are largely looked after. Hurray! My adult trekkie is happy. The setting also has a strong resonance with the slightly more realistic Firefly fan in me, in large part because Mindjammer isn’t afraid to show its influences, and more importantly, she encourages *players* to create characters that reflect *their* influences. The rules represent and support this – Mindjammer shows remarkable foresight and a lack of hubris with regard to its influences.
What Firefly did brilliantly was show what the effect of rapid colonization and terraforming would have on humanity. Mindjammer’s Commonality setting talks about the cosmopolitan and affluent core worlds and the somewhat wild and rough frontier worlds, freshly terraformed and plunked down with basic supplies and farming equipment and left there. There’s some of that in other SF settings I can think of, but nobody did that part better than Firefly, and it’s the sort of thing represented here with both brevity and beauty. So there’s class struggle.
There’s also still commerce, but it’s handled through barter and done in a mostly unregulated fashion. One thing I love is that there is no money or experience points in Mindjammer – just a kind of arbitrary degree of creditworthiness that means bartering is done through negotiation with the GM, unless there’s credit stress – a kind of long-term damage you can take – that inhibits you from purchasing things. The rest of the time, the question becomes a matter of deciding whether you “have enough” or “don’t have enough”, and the difference is decided by a modifier to your dice roll to attempt to purchase something. Brilliant! Less squabbling over cash and costs, less trying to maximize value to cash spent. As for experience, how your character develops is done entirely through circumstance. If you think there’s a reason for you to change your character, change away, but you’ll more than likely just evolve rather than improve, i.e. more often you’ll make changes rather than add new things.
There’s also an interstellar Internet, or mindscape, and personal computing, in the form of what the game calls auras (like your PC you carry with you, with all your personal info and Internet history, naughty sites included, on it) and personal networks. These things operate almost entirely through neural implants and can be accessed with a thought.
There are also aliens, robots and splinter human groups. The game sets up a few basic groups and leaves the possibilities open for more, along with very simple, very effective toolkits to create them.
Remember what I was saying about influences? There’s a human group called the Venu which should give all wargamers a good chuckle. They’re a bunch of fanatical people that broke off from humanity a long time ago and now worship a dead god-emperor, venerating technology in ignorance of how it works. They’re severely warlike and attack everyone they meet, calling them heretics, but everyone else just thinks they’re a bunch of annoying, backward weirdos that should get on with their lives. This exemplifies my interest in this setting: classical 70s-90s SF optimism, open expression of influences, and dry tongue-in-cheek humour at things I love to laugh at. Marry me, Sarah Newton. [Um-ah! I’m telling Autojill! – GdayEditor] This is what I like about you: you don’t think you’re special because you dreamed up all this stuff on your own – you let the fact that you single-handedly composed an elegantly, simple yet staggeringly comprehensive 500-page magnum role-playing opus define how awesome you are *while* thumbing your nose at childish notions of authenticity and originality. *That* makes you awesome. <applause>
So that’s about it for stuff in the setting! Of course there’s more than that, but most of it is a basic breakdown of relatively simple things, at least in concept. There are a number of technological schematics that sort of create a floor and ceiling for the kinds of technology the setting is designed to support, but are still flexible about, and fiction that situates the rules, some interesting history here and there, but the main thing I think is something Mindjammer grasps very well: That the story and the nuances are to be created by the players and the GM, together. All it needs are some basic components for space, society, technology, Internet and hacking, some examples to work with, and some brilliant toolkits to create your own aspects, and have fun and go from there! There is *a lot* to work with, but as I say, elegantly simple. There is, of course, also the aspects of character creation, which are pretty much my favourite, and I will get to those later.
While I’m on the subject of the breakdowns of various bits of technology, worlds, alien races, etc, I want to take a moment to talk about the layout of the book. It’s actually quite stunning. At first it took some getting used to, without the bevy of Wizards of the Coasts artists backing its play, but maybe I’ve been spoiled in that department. What I like most is probably the profile-type pages that detail planets, starship schematics and stuff like that. I’m a sucker for technical stuff like that. In particular the blueprints for ships–they borrow from floor plans for buildings in key aesthetic ways, like how they show doors and things. I find it terribly appealing, and it’s a continuous and clean set-up. The planet profiles at the end of the book are great, with their maps arranged as unfolded spheres appear, in triangular, teeth-like segments.
Sarah Newton does one of the things I would ask of a person designing an RPG–she calls it theatre. Sweet mercy, thank you for this. Language is critical. Calling it theatre pulls the whole process in the right direction – cooperation. RPGs at their heart are less like video games and more like cinema. Certainly there is game there, but there is less than one might initially think. Most games, whether they are video games, board games, card games, etc. are structured in such a way that you arrange an environment with all the variables determined by an external structure like a game board, a rigidl ruleset or something to keep the whole thing carefully contained. This is so that the maze you set the rats (I mean players) loose in has firm walls to keep some of them from going incorporeal, so to speak. Theatre is different. It’s about working together to create the story. So often the way a story unfolds determines what kinds of challenges the GM will confront players with. Gearing the process more towards game than theatre causes players to seek to game the system and play against the GM. The GM should not be constantly at war with his players, trying to discourage their antics by introducing and maintaining complex world elements that will contain them. Meanwhile, an ever more complex series of rules for races, classes, equipment and skills allows for combinations that will be more and more impossible to contain, or players become frustrated and intractable, getting into arguments with the GM because they are simply told again and again what they cannot do because they will die or go to prison.
Mindjammer isn’t like this. This game is about cooperation with the goal being a narrative everyone is working for together, and the rules support this. The game is built using the Fate Core rules system, which is now being adopted for a number of games like Mindjammer sinces its rebirth. Finding a great system and integrating your own material into it is like making your own art out of another’s novel idea for a canvas. Character creation is very streamlined and open-ended. Characters have aspects, fate points, skills, stunts and extras, essentially. Not a long list! There is no stat block, which means the game veers sharply away from statistics and demonstrates much less of that “gaming the system” attitude I’ve been railing against.
Fate, as a gaming system is not needlessly complicated, and it encourages the community theatre aspect of RPGs that has been sorely underrepresented in the past. The generational element is still there, however. Fate is based around an older system called FUDGE, and borrows in particular a set of <plus> and <minus> dice and assumes everyone and everything (including objects) is mediocre at everything, unless you’ve got some kind of attribute that makes you great or terrible at it. Then you get modifiers, roll a few of the “fudge dice” as they’re called, and apply them to the situation to see how you do. How greatly the results can vary in the situation change the number of dice involved.
I think my favourite part of the character creation is aspects. IMindjammer defines them beautifully as a number of necessary traits each player can define for themselves under such descriptive titles as “High Concept” or “Trouble”. These are perfect and inspriational. If I’m defining my character’s high concept, I would say something like “Smooth-Talking Interstellar Commodities Trader”. That tells you everything you need to know! It’s like Twitter RPGing. I love it. “Trouble” is even better. “Addiction to high-stakes space-pug fighting.” Of course, my GM would encourage me to simplify it in order to make it less circumstantial, so “Compulsive Gambler” would work better.
The idea is that all of these aspects are double-edged swords. Players start with a certain number of fate points defined by the GM. More means a more operatic and dramatic game, less means more gritty and real. You use these fate points to “Invoke” your aspects, so if my commodities trader character Jimmy meets a thief about to make a big run on a food conglomerate’s patents, Jimmy would ask to spend a fate point to get involved in the heist and be invested so he could short their stock beforehand. Thus, my fate store is depleted. If, however, I’m in the middle of a gunfight and we risk blowing up a uranium plant, the GM may “Compel” Jimmy to take a penalty to his use of a grenade because he’s invested in uranium stocks. This will actually replenish my fate points store by one. I think that’s a great system, because in the end, there is an upside to everything and it’s all characterful. GMs and players are encouraged to act together to keep things entertaining and fun.
Skills are essentially the things you will try to do and/or be good at, and you will have a predefined number of points to spend on them. They can be basic, like Notice, or complex like Biomechanical Hacking (I may have invented that, but Mindjammer encourages making up your own – something I like). Each is used in one of four basic actions that comprise anything you might try to do in the game: Overcome, Create an Advantage, Attack and Defend. You can start to see how open-ended these things really are, as something like attack could reference shooting someone with a gun or initiate hostile takeover of a company.
Stunts are even more invested in creativity, as they are things players get more to their taste and denote a kind of expertise in a skill, but only under particular circumstances. So if I’ve got a stunt called, say, Combat Pastry Chef, then under normal baking endeavours, I would only be as good as the skill points I’d put into Baking. But when making danishes under heavy plasma cannon fire, I would be able to expend a fate point to use my Combat Pastry Chef stunt to improve my chances considerably for that one test, presumably using the plasma fire to preheat the oven. Extras are things that behave like Skills and Aspects, etc, but are more frequently related to things external to the player, like belonging to a law firm or police force, or having a shiny gun or something like that. So you can call on your organizations’ resources for things, or shoot stuff. They also include a long list of genetic modifications, which many SF players in particular would find irresistable, like gills, ocular implants by Google Glass or additional limbs or subdermal armour. Very post-human, and a very appreciable part of the setting.
So much of the game is based in these wonderful DIY toolkits and a setting designed to support them, that many of the examples feel more like sources of inspiration than true elements the players would wish to adopt directly. I feel like focusing too much on the examples would either diminish the true value of the game or spoil the inspirational bits. As an example, in the list of aliens and other species players can play, there is some explication about how certain Earth animal species have been nurtured genetically into animal people, and they will frequently denote a set of aspects and skills, again, which are double-edged. One of the examples she gives is in essence, dolphin people. They are acrobatic and smooth talkers, but are prone to practical joking and being annoying or disruptive.
I think if there were one idea I’d want to impart in this review, it’s quite simply “Elegant Simplicity”. The game is about cooperating to have fun with a group of friends while you get to role-play some cool character concept that you’ve created, which in my experience is the essence of these games. Far too often the mediation of over-complex rules either diminishes the effect of the drama by its far-too-specific and clunky implementation, or its fractal-spreadsheet-nightmare statistics clog and prevent rich narrative from being realized at all, instead encouraging players to fight against the rules themselves. The world is richly compelling, not afraid to show its influential bones, and gives a great deal to work with while avoiding the pitfall of becoming the focus of the material. While my days of role-playing are generally far behind me, they still provide a source of endless fascination for me as an academic, and this game in many ways is a realization of everything I could have asked for in an RPG.
In closing, I just wanted to make one final remark… I generally don’t end up liking a game until I have envisioned what kind of a character *I* would like to play, and all joking aside, I was really taken with Newton’s description of sentient spacecraft with avatars they use to interact on a small scale. I would relish the opportunity to play the straight man to other players’ zany antics by essentially being a re-purposed luxury space yacht with the personality and sense of etiquette of Carson the butler from Downton Abbey. There is too much fun to be had in the aspects you could come up with for characters like that… THERE IS NO SHAME IN A GUY LIKING DOWNTON ABBEY.
Mindjammer is a transhuman role playing game from Mindjammer Press, created by Sarah Newton. You can preorder a hardcover of the new Fate Core edition of the game, releasing April 9th, from Modiphius Entertainment over here, and get your mitts on a full PDF of the rules. Cos why wouldn’t you?