Friday, 8 April 2011

Review - Humanspace Empires Playtest Draft (1/2)

Here's a game review in two parts, for the Playtest Draft of Humanspace Empires by The Drune, free at ix.

Today we'll have the design context and introduce the setting, and tomorrow a proper look under the hood.

If you've not heard of it yet, Humanspace Empires is a pulp science fantasy roleplaying game set in the sumptuous and complex Tékumel universe.

It's a reimagining of the famed Dungeons & Dragons development Empire of the Petal Throne. But just as EPT was much more than a new D&D in space, Humanspace Empires is far more than just another retro-clone.

'Clone' might sound like a pejorative, but it's not; they're popular. For those who don't recognise the term, retro-clones are a symptom of a fever sweeping the gaming world, the OSR, usually standing for the Old School Renaissance. This is a loose movement of players of classic RPGs or the corresponding clones. Some of the players are getting back into the hobby, some never left, and we're talking nearly 40 years of history.

As a general rule, the games in question are characterised by a 'rules-light' approach, with less emphasis on layers of mechanics and more on imagination and improvisation.

For a metaphor, take a look at the home blog - all you really need to know about ix is summed up at this post, with every banner image the blog has ever used. A picture may tell a thousand words, but each of these could work up a thousand nerds. The point?

The rules-light gaming approach says - paraphrasing plenty - that one rule allows a thousand different kinds of fun, but that a thousand rules may allow just the one.

Back to the ruleset later. First some history and background, and by extension what makes Humanspace Empires more than just a reimagining.

When Dungeons & Dragons was published in 1974 one of the early tinkerers was a Prof. M. A. R. Barker. Later that year he self-published a game with the title Empire of the Petal Throne, based on his own world and using D&D mechanics, and soon counted D&D's Dave Arneson as a player and fan. Gary Gygax heard about it and it got a boxed TSR release. Gygax called it "the most beautifully done fantasy game ever created".

The setting was Tékumel, a human-settled post-apocalyptic far future world, which Barker had been developing for decades with a similar in-depth approach to Tolkien. The world was terraformed and settled by human explorers around 60,000 years in our future, but then thrown - star system and all - into a pocket dimension.

The underlying themes become isolation, civilisational collapse, energies not of this plane and other-dimensional beings. Barker was a professor of Urdu and South Asian studies, and well-thought-out societies and constructed languages are a feature of the setting, with Mesoamerican influences clear too, and more in there besides.

As a game, EPT emphasised improvisation, even rule-free action. It was an immersion in an exotic and intricate world, not only about labyrinths even then. Later developments included the two published Swords & Glory books of '82-3, which added more setting material as well as Barker's own modular ruleset, and more releases followed over the years. It doesn't seem it was ever a commercial success, and was possibly too far ahead in the mid-'70s. But game and setting have picked up a lot of supporters.

There's much more on the history in this excellent post at Fabled Lands.

So we come to 2011 and Humanspace Empires. There are two things making this new game properly new, a very different creature to Empire of the Petal Throne.

The first is the in-game time period, which is the ancient past from the perspective of EPT, and the freedom to roam between the stars. This makes the game more of a grand space opera, and a form of prequel too, one occurring in a world which may borrow from a predecessor, but sets its own terms too. Given the time since the appearance of EPT, it's also able to draw on many more sources, and bring in new ideas. As if that were not enough, it's also bounded in the future by a known sequence of events, for extra drama.

The second thing making the game a different beastie is the ruleset, which is The Drune's own Synthetic 75 Science Fantasy Retro Roleplaying, in his words "a mash up of (what I consider) the best from the hottest RPGs of 1975, Dungeons & Dragons (with maybe a dash of Greyhawk and a pinch of Blackmoor…they were both out in 1975) and Prof. M.A.R. Barker's Tekumel: Empire of the Petal Throne."

He then quotes Rob Conley at Bat in the Attic, via NetherWerks, a quote which I would have used here anyway as a great overview of the purpose of it all.

… the Old School Renaissance is not about playing a particular set of rules in a particular way, the dungeon crawl. It about going back to the roots of our hobby and see what we could do differently. What avenues were not explored because of the commercial and personal interests of the game designers of the time.
That's what we need to know to go forward. Tomorrow I'll look into the pdf itself and show how Humanspace Empires stays true to its roots in Tékumel, while offering a route into the OSR and the classics of roleplaying for players who've never had the pleasure.

If you want to get a headstart, it's free to download here at ix, which is also an excellent source of inspiration and supplementary material. Because this is the playtest copy, much is still in flux. Your feedback is very welcome and could change the game.



netherwerks said...

Thanks for doing this Porky. More feedback can only help.

Cronickain said...

I'll grab it and check it out! Thanks for doing the review. I love the concept!

Porky said...

It's such a lot of fun it's been hard to rein the review in. One post was the plan, but I wanted to make sure the context was clear and the OSR and Tékumel were properly introduced, and the mechanics are just too important a subject to skim through.

Needles said...

I'm doing my part & starting off my Weds night group into this fantastic game! Drune deserves the all of the credit he's getting & more! Basically I feel that it expands the scope of the game by a warp factor of five!

The Drune said...

Thanks for the thorough review. I'm looking forward to the second part.