A review of the Slipstream Plot Point setting for the Savage Worlds roleplaying game.
Summary: 8/10. A very nice space pulp setting. Not quite good enough to make me drop my current campaigns and start this one, but definitely good enough to go in the queue for when the current ones finish, and a lot of ideas I can steal right away.
Slipstream aims to capture the feel of 1930s pulp serials such as Flash Gordon, rather than that of realistic hard SF. (I can understand that; to paraphrase Winchell Chung, the more you learn about realistic spaceship combat, the less interesting it becomes.)
Like much of the Savage Worlds line, this is written by Paul “Wiggy” Wade-Williams, and is a 162 page book – or in my case, PDF download. (I tend to check things out by buying the PDF online, and then splash out for the hardcopy version if and when I decide to use it in anger.) The PDF comes in two flavours; one in full colour throughout, and a printer-friendly one with no background images. The pair of them set me back $24 or so, and are available from Studio 2 Publishing, who offered fast, friendly service once the Paypal transaction had cleared – the delay in clearance was my fault really, as I’d allowed my Paypal account to run dry, and it takes 9 days to refill it with a bank transfer.
Chapter by chapter, this is what we find inside. I’ll assume you already understand Savage Worlds, as you’ll need a copy of those rules to play Slipstream.
1. Welcome to Slipstream: This is an overview of the milieu. The premise is that all black holes in our universe have a route into a pocket universe called Slipstream; if you fall into a black hole and are sufficiently lucky, you wind up here. The pocket universe is full of fragments of planets that fell into a black hole and were torn apart; it is bathed in a perpetual twilight, and there is thin but breatheable air in the gaps between fragments.
2. Characters: These are created using pretty much the standard Savage Worlds rules. Unusually, there are dozens of alien races, not just a handful; 9 are presented in detail, 37 with capsule descriptions, and these are backed up by a race generator if none of the standard ones appeal. Note that cheesy names for races and their homeworlds (e.g. the Lion Men of Simba) are de rigeur, and a conscious part of the approach. I applaud the inclusion of five pre-made characters, enough for a group to try out the game without having to learn all the setting-specific details first.
As ever, the Edges and Hindrances are the core of character creation, and a number of new ones are listed. I especially liked “I Have One!”, which allows your character to produce from his pack or pockets whatever mundane item the heroes really wish they had brought with them.
3. Gear: Rayguns, rocket packs and rocketships predominate here. If you saw it in Flash Gordon, the chances are it’s in here. Personally, I feel that the pulp hero needs only his wits, his sidearm, and a communicator, so I tend to skim the equipment chapter in RPGs; it’s rare that I feel the need to stray beyond the items in the basic rules. The Gear section includes descriptions of 10 standard rocketships and 5 stock vehicles.
4. Setting Rules: Slipstream follows the pulp convention that heroes and major villains rarely die, and there are adjustments to the usual Incapacitation rules that make it almost impossible to kill a Wild Card without deliberately setting out to finish him while he’s down and helpless – the hallmark of a villain. Henchmen are introduced, as an intermediate step between Extras (standard NPCs) and Wild Cards (PCs and major villains). It’s also suggested that GM remove Shaken status for hordes of Extras, making them easier to defeat in large quantities (“Conservation of Ninjitsu“), and consider making the villain’s sidekicks fanatically eager to take a bullet for him. Actually, come to think of it, that might be appropriate for some good guys, too.
There are rules for flying rocketships both in and out of combat, and trading with them between fragments. Those easily offended by deliberate and casual sidestepping of the laws of physics should look away; picture them as being like aircraft in the basic rules, which is much in keeping with the pulp approach. The pocket universe has a spiralling gravity wave called the Slipstream, which can throw your rocketship off course, and this is also covered.
Finally, there are 8 new psionic powers, including Mind Reading and Telepathy – these were left out of the basic rules as a conscious design decision, in case they made detective scenarios too easy; but one can’t really have pulp psionics without them.
5. Gazetteer: This is what Traveller players would recognise as Library Data – capsule summaries of what the PCs know about their world, notably four pages of short paragraphs on the major fragments and other common knowledge. As and when I run Slipstream, I would make this section available to the players. In fact, the players could read anything up to and including this section.
6. What is Slipstream? This chapter is advice for the GM on how to run a space pulp campaign, including the black-and-white morality, cliffhangers, and other conventions of the genre, as well as an explanation of the Forces of Evil and their dastardly plans.
7. Fragments: This is the GM’s version of the information on assorted fragments in the Gazetteer. Each fragment is listed with a terrain type (this is pulp – only one terrain type per planet), a few paragraphs of information, and often a cross-reference to a scenario in the Savage Tales chapter, so that when your heroes land on the fragment, you know what adventures are available for them. There are also a number of generic encounter tables.
8. Season 1, Death Clouds: This presents a complete campaign in 10 scenarios (“episodes”), pitting the heroes against one of the main Forces of Evil in the setting. It’s hard to describe these without giving away the plotline, so I won’t. I will say that I liked the maps and deck plans, but found them hard to read because of their colours and small size. I could just about make them out by expanding the PDF images to 200%, but then the text became too blurry to read. A minor nitpick, this, it’s not like I have a shortage of deckplans.
The 10 episodes are followed by a Season Generator, explaining how to create (if necessary, by die rolls) further series of adventures for the heroes, each with their own nemesis, villainous henchmen, exotic locales, alien artefacts and so forth.
9. Savage Tales: Here are 21 scenarios, some of which can be used more than once, stand-alone adventures intended to fill in the gaps between the major “story arc” episodes of a season. Many of them occur on a specific fragment, and are referenced in chapter 7.
10. Encounters: The obligatory bestiary section, containing a number of alien creatures, stats for both major (named) and stock NPCs, traps, and environmental hazards; and advice on customising all of the above to create more varied threats to your heroes. One thing I do like about Savage Worlds compared to (say) D&D is its realisation that the standard Mk 1 human at various experience levels constitutes a goodly proportion of the typical group’s encounters, and should be present in the rules as such; the stock NPCs include a wide range of guards, bounty hunters, concerned citizens and so forth. Finally, we have character sheets both for your hero and his rocketship.
Conclusion: I’ve been looking forward to Slipstream for a while now, and I’m not disappointed. The presentation is good. It integrates tightly with Savage Worlds, and is detailed enough that I could run it easily under a number of other SF RPG rule systems. There’s enough information here to run about two years’ worth of face-to-face gaming sessions at my current rate, or to see me through to retirement if I use them for a play-by-email game. Things like the race and season generators would continue to be useful for long after that, and the season generator in particular would be easy to merge into my current game.