Saturday, 9 April 2011

Review - Humanspace Empires Playtest Draft (2/2)

The second part of the two-day review looking at Humanspace Empires, a new game by The Drune. It's currently in its Playtest Draft and available to download free at ix.

If you haven't read the first part yet, Humanspace Empires is a pulp science fantasy roleplaying game set in the sumptuous and complex Tékumel universe, a reimagining of the famed Dungeons & Dragons development Empire of the Petal Throne (EPT).

Yesterday we had the design context, the key terminology, some D&D history and an introduction to the setting; today we look at the pdf proper, and the very special ruleset.

For a playtest draft the pdf looks surprisingly good. The 55 pages are arranged portrait in two-columns, with large and attractive fonts on white, including a fun heading style. There's also a lot of cool black and white art evoking weird sci-fi. It's structured as we'd expect for a game of its influences, part of the wider Old School Renaissance (OSR), but feels fresher and more modern-feeling than some pdfs, thanks to that design.

We get a good simple introduction to start, with a timeline running from Atomic Armageddon in 2012, through the encounter with the Pé Choi and others - including the Shén - into the Terran Empires and Clonemaster dynasties, past mentions of subatomic planetbuster bombs and the interfogulator, right up to c. 111,912 when Tékumel is lost.

Character generation comes next of course, and may have its surprises, depending on gaming interest. The basic attributes - strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, psychic power and charisma - are not generated with the D100 of EPT or many modern RPGs, but with the good old 3D6. Yep, if you're non OSR, just six stats, and still variable when rolling. There's also no chance to shuffle points between attributes, which some related systems allow, although attributes can increase with experience. On the other hand, the numbers are banded to give modifiers to rolls, helping limit wild variation.

So that's two negatives? Not at all. The approach has a point, and a very clear one in 2011. It moves a player away from complete freedom of choice, the chance to do and be all the player wants in the game - away from listing those things in endless lines of numbers - and has the player's interactions with the game world mediated more through the character, a character who may have quirks the player wouldn't necessarily choose, demanding more of the player, surprising the player and keeping things interesting. This means more being another individual, more exploring another existence, more roleplaying. Players move beyond the rules. Power is passed from ruleset to player.

Next up in character creation are species, and this is where the options do start to increase. There are eight beside humans, which is some variety for the game type, and several are non-humanoid. They each get a write-up and there are restrictions to attributes, meaning certain scores preclude certain species. More of that challenge.

Androids and robots are not included in the playtest draft, and only brief mention is made of three other common concepts, i.e. mutants, the genetically enhanced and 'cymeks' - cybernetic characters - with the rarity of the latter two explained by the setting history. If you do want mutants, another advantage of the OSR and its essential simplicity becomes clear - easy cross-compatibility. Here for example you can plug in the retro-clone Mutant Future - also free to download - with just a bit of tweaking.

Incidentally, alignments are done away with for player characters (PCs), although non-player characters (NPCs) can be inimical, neutral or allied. This strikes me as very true to the spirit of EPT, with player and group trusted to use their judgements, make the game world their own and fly by the seat of their pants.

A major EPT innovation was the use of skills, something not everyone in the OSR has time for, but here the system is kept beautifully simple, a bridge between rules-heavy and -light. Number and type of skill are determined randomly at generation, also giving potentially very large variation, but the player may choose freely within a type. There's an optional homeworld tech level, again entirely random, opening up more. Skills can also be learnt over the course of a campaign, with time and credits spent, or with experience.

How are these skills rated? They're not. We have an often evocative name and a brief overview of the skill only, enough to set the mind in motion. Think! - the system seems to be telling us here too - think into the character and you need no numbers! It's more power to the player and a wonderful compromise, lots of colour for very little burden.

The four basic classes are adventurer, warrior, robot and scientist. I'll declare now I'm not a big fan of classes in general, but there is a lot of blurring of the edges of these, with the possibility of gaining not only specific class skills, but psy powers or superscientific powers too. Once again, we have the sense the game wants to be more than a straight retro-clone, and is building on changes since the early days and reaching out.

The class-specific skills tables use a simple and clever sequence helping to filter out randomness, but limit player choices to a natural development. There's the expected vast number of psy powers, and a wide range of superscientific powers too, with surprises likely even for those who've seen a few spell lists in their time. Names and descriptions also bring out more of the flavour of the setting, the weird scientific nature.

Skills and powers both are used by rolling the good old D20, applying modifiers and referring to a single table. Again, not everyone likes tables, but one is very easily learnt. The use of a D20 may be fairly alien for some players, whether they're more familiar with the D100 or smaller dice, but rolling against attributes of 3D6 it is stable, and it allows a grading which dice with less faces lack on one roll.

There are ten pages of weapons and gear, much of it familiar, but with more than a few surprises given the scope of the potential sources. There's a good mix of low fantasy and pulp sci-fi, and a nod or two to specific works. That planetbuster is in there too, which may seem odd, but in a rules-light system every word is a potential adventure, a window on the possible. Basic stats are listed in reference tables. For very simple items another popular OSR game may be plugged in, Labyrinth Lord.

We come now to encounters and combat, perhaps the most complex aspect of the whole game rules-wise, albeit in relative terms. This section of the pdf covers initial situation and the various reactions, and has an optional less random system for initiative which mixes things up a little. Certain details, like movement rates, may leave some scratching their heads, but the short section on adventuring at the end of the file, or a careful re-read, should hold the answers. Also, while the section covers additional aspects of combat fully, including fumbling or jamming, critical hits and the potential for instant death, there's no clear overview, so if you are new to this kind of game, I suggest reading through it all before attempting to understand any one element.

The central mechanism is the use of a D20 to make attacks, the comparison of the roll to a table matching ability with protection, and the loss of hit points, hit points being a measure of capacity for injury. There are two tables, one for PCs / NPCs and one for monsters, again, something easily picked up with play. The concept of saving throws for various effects is explained well, with a short table for each of four diferent groups.

Given all of this, I would make a few recommendations. One is the addition of a simple reference list of stages in encounters and combat, and at least one example of a simple combat and one example of a whole multi-character encounter. Use of maps when exploring could also be described at some point in the file, and maps with or without miniatures may be useful when it comes to keeping track of larger combats.

On a related note, it's in the combat section that the role of the Referee - or DM / GM - first seems to need a little more explanation, a general picture of play. Almost anyone who's roleplayed will be familiar with the idea in some form, but a short overview of the concept and some guidance would help the less experienced.

It may well be that all of this is due in the final version, as this is of course a playtest draft only. Monsters will also be added in later, but ix has some get started with.

The adventuring section gives us more of what we need to actually get a game running, and is again refreshingly light. It sketches and gives examples, refusing to lay everything out in detail. Interestingly, it emphasises the likelihood of playing adventures in enclosed spaces like ruins, hulks and bases, perhaps reflecting the dungeon-heavy OSR, but more specific planetary and space materials are due in later versions.

In rules terms we have the usual division of time into turns and rounds, plus simple mechanisms for tiredness, weight, darkness, lack of air and gravity, doors and traps, and of course awarding experience. And that's it. The lack of detail here is also likely due to this being a playtest draft and the core target audience - the OSR - being creative enough and experienced enough to know exactly what to do next. That said, after reading through this one pdf, even a non-roleplayer ought to have the itch to get started and enough material to feel the way in, step by strange step.

The simplicity of the approach brings a low barrier to entry, but as the OSR shows, it also means the potential is vast, and grows with experience rather than shrinks.

In summary then, Humanspace Empires is access to a grand history in a rich setting, with an open door to newer ideas and fresh takes. There's scope and encouragement in the ruleset for the players to be creative and go further in imagination and improvisation than more complex games may allow. Compromise too, with the range of species, skills and technologies meaning plenty of prompts if you need them, including through other OSR pojects. This helps make the game more of a bridge between rules-heavy, option-filled RPGs and the more basic retro-clones. Past and future in one, sci-fi with fantasy, lots of good ideas and images. And free to download. Given that this is the playtest draft, the game can only get better, and your feedback is very welcome too.

Keep up on progress and new materials and ideas at ix. Check out shenblog too...

Thanks here to The Drune, for permission to use the images, for giving me complete freedom in how I ran the review, and of course for producing such a good game.


Desert Scribe said...

Thanks for reviewing this, Porky. I'd known it was available, but I hadn't read it myself. Your overview gave me a nice idea of what the game's about. I'm curious; were you one of the players in ckutalik's Skype game awhile back?

DocStout said...

This is really interesting stuff. I had a passing familiarity with Tekumel, but the commitment to the science fiction aspects of the setting in a prequel of sorts piqued my curiosity. Your review inspired me to pop over and get the pdf myself. Thanks!

Porky said...

@ Desert Scribe - No worries. It really is something special and rewards the time. I wasn't part of the Skype adventure, but it sounds like it was a lot of fun, and the story is a great example of what the game can do.

The Skype write-ups can be found here, at Hill Cantons, and here, at ix.

@ DocStout - The sci-fi aspects give it real breadth and make it far more powerful as a general resource. I think for me this is the new go-to for the type and genre.

The Drune said...

Thanks for the great review. I really appreciate the interest and need feedback to improve the game.

The final version of the basic book should be out by the beginning of summer. It will essentially be a revision of the play test draft reflecting various re-thinkings, expansions, lessons learned from play testing, etc.

A space monsters book and a third book with rules for spaceships, space travel, space battles, planetary adventures, and sandbox worlds are planned for release by the end of the year.

Porky said...

Lots to be excited about. I'll see if I can't go some small way to easing the burden with a few ideas here and there.