Pinnacle has produced a number of genre toolkits, typically three for each genre: A bestiary, a world builders’ guide, and an equipment book. These are all optional with a capital O, intended to act as examples and guidelines rather than strict rules; as the author says, "take what you need, and modify the rest".
This review is about the science fiction toolkits, which were published in 2004-2006, and like so much of the SW line, written by Paul "Wiggy" Wade-Williams.
Science-Fiction Bestiary Toolkit (62 pages)
- Introduction (1 page). This explains the book’s contents, and stresses that these are optional rules and creatures.
- Populating Worlds (6 pages). This kicks off with a random alien creature generator (with an example creature), provides advice on reskinning beasts for an SF setting, and lists some new monstrous abilities to confer on animals. There is also a system for creating intelligent aliens – the book suggests that these are used as templates, which are then applied to the statblocks in the Archetypes chapter to create alien NPCs; note that this system produces NPC alien races quickly, and isn’t necessarily balanced – for the PC race rules, you need the World Builder toolkit.
- Strange Beasts (21 pages). These are mundane creatures – "the alien equivalent of lions and cows", with no psionic or other special powers. Over 60 creatures are listed, together with sidebars on random encounters and encounter tables. As always in SW, the Sorting Algorithm of Evil doesn’t apply – the PCs meet what they meet, and are expected to fight, run, or trick their way out of the situation as appropriate. There are also comments on how much food you can glean from a carcass after a hunt. I think I would get most mileage out of Jester Monkeys (comical, but potentially lethal to the unprepared) and Species ZS-665, which reminds me a lot of a certain movie xenomorph with acidic blood.
- Weird Aliens (9 pages). These beasties are not so mundane – they include vacuum-dwelling starship-eating squid, cyber-dogs, B-movie giant ants, psionic creatures, icky parasites that take over normal people for nefarious purposes, uplifted chimpanzees, and more. This is a good chapter to play "spot the movie influence".
- Hazards (4 pages). Mundane hazards – avalanches, forest fires, crevasses and so on. There’s a good range of these, with straightforward rules or guidelines for each one.
- Robots (8 pages). While the SF Gear Toolkit provides rules for designing robots, this chapter provides 20 pre-designed sample robots. It would be a while before you needed any more.
- Archetypes (10 pages). Another good place to play "spot the movie influence" (incidentally, that’s not a criticism). Around 50 stock characters, created as humans but with the intent that you can apply alien templates to generate non-human NPCs quickly. Here you’ll find soldiers and crewmen of various ranks and specialities, thugs, merchants, pirates, psi-knights and others.
Science Fiction Gear Toolkit (68 pages)
- Introduction. (2 pages). This explains the purpose of the book – advice and guidance rather than "official" rules – and gives a range of suggested technology levels from 0 (present-day Earth) to 3 (super-science). It’s important to remember that this toolkit – like the others – provides a wide range of interesting ideas, and leaves it to the individual GM to decide what to incorporate, and what makes no sense in his campaign.
- Mundane Gear. (6 pages). Armour, weapons and adventuring gear. Here is where you’ll find personal forcefields, spacesuits, guns, communicators and so forth.
- Cybernetics. (5 pages). Here’s the implanted cyberpunk equipment. Cyberware in this toolkit is largely another set of trappings for the standard SW powers.
- Cyberspace. (9 pages). This explains how to build your hacker’s rig, how to get past the ICE protecting sensitive systems, and what to do once you get there. The rig, and its cyberspace persona, are rated as a character, as are the defensive measures it will encounter. The whole feel is very like William Gibson’s novels, or the Cyberpunk RPG.
- Starships. (12 pages). This presents two approaches to starship design; the "as you need" method – i.e, the GM makes it up as he sees fit by comparison to the generic ships presented later in the chapter) – and the "construction method", a more traditional approach involving selecting a hull, then allocating its available capacity to various systems. There are sidebars on FTL drive and Handling (trading available capacity for Piloting bonuses). Finally, we have 19 generic spacecraft, and component tables for the hulls and systems, showing how much of what can fit in what, and how much it costs.
- Vehicles. (6 pages) This applies the starship approach to planet-bound vehicles, giving "as you need" and "construction" methods for vehicles, and 16 sample vehicles.
- Mechs. (6 pages). The by-now-familiar two construction methods, combat rules for mechs, and a dozen or so example units. Mechs are essentially vehicles, but separated into their own chapter as not every setting has them.
- Power Armour. (4 pages). Same methods again, with appropriate chassis and component tables, and 9 sample suits of power armour.
- Robots. (5 pages). Three construction methods this time; build ’em as characters, build ’em as robots, or the chassis and component approach. The character method swaps the stock human’s free Edge for the Construct monstrous ability, the monster approach is essentially the "as you need" method, and the chassis and component one is the "construction" method. There are half-a-dozen stock robots too – for a wider range, get the Bestiary Toolkit.
- Weird Science. (3 pages). Weird Science becomes less useful as an Arcane Background as the campaign tech level rises, because the mundane devices get steadily more weird themselves. The chapter introduces two new Edges for Weird Scientists; Artificer, which lets them imbue their devices with skill bonuses, and Chemist, which lets them create "potions" imbued with a power or edge. This short chapter closes with a discussion of alien gear and artefacts.
- Superhero Lairs. (4 pages). This is taken from the Necessary Evil worldbook, and allows the PCs to construct a base of operations. Lair is a new Social edge, which grants the character 5 "lair points". Anyone in the group can take Lair, multiple times if they wish, and get 5 more Lair Points each time. The lair’s owner must specify its size and location (bigger and more remote cost more points), then each facility (command room, training area, etc) costs points as well – the lair’s size defines how many more points you can build into it. Four sample lairs of various sizes are provided.
Sci-Fi World Builder Toolkit (66 pages)
- Introduction (1 page). The usual overview of contents and admonition to pick and choose from them.
- Drawing Board (6 pages). How to select a style for the campaign – hard SF, pulp, space opera, B movie, cyberpunk, historical, or weird science. A discussion of technology levels, duplicating that in the Gear Toolkit. Advice on Hooks (essential) and Plot Points (or story arcs – optional). How those factors bear on the campaign’s background. The toolkit assumes that there is some kind of over-arching plot for the campaign, at least when you create it, even if the PCs later go off and do something completely different.
- Setting Basics (4 pages). How big is the setting – a world, a star system, a galaxy? What technologies will it employ? (The toolkit advises against just piling everything in, rather stressing a selection of 2-3 main tropes – you might have starships and psionics, for instance, but no cyberware or mechs.) What character archetypes are there? What alien races, gear, new edges and hindrances? What new rules will you need?
- World Design (18 pages). First, the book advises you to decide whether you have a top-down or bottom up approach. Will you provide a rough outline of the galaxy, or only look at where the PCs are standing right now? Either way, it advises a short handout for players with the key facts. Next comes a world-making section; this is a series of random tables for creating planets from scratch, and will be familiar in concept to anyone who has played any version of Traveller, or indeed most other SF games. This includes guidance on the impact of various terrain types and gravity levels, and a couple of new edges to mitigate them. Then there are balanced rules for creating alien races, ones suitable for use by PCs, with random tables for some aspects in case you run out of inspiration.
- Trade and Travel (8 pages). Here we find a discussion of trade and economics in the campaign; one simple and one complex system for handling speculative trade conducted by the players; travel both on and between planets; starship operations; options for different calendars on different planets.
- Starship Combat (4 pages). This is handled as a special case of vehicle combat, covered in the basic SW rules. There are new edges, new manoeuvres, and a discussion of boarding actions.
- Major Players (4 pages). This advises how to create factions for your campaign – the organisations, shadowy or overt, which engage with your PCs as friends or foes. The focus here is on Professional Edges appropriate to membership. One example organisation, and 9 new professional edges, are listed.
- Psionics (4 pages). This section is about customising the Arcane Background (Psionics) edge to individualise your campaign. It includes new and variant psionic edges.
- Psionic Powers (7 pages). How to modify powers to fit into your setting better, plus 19 new powers.
- Time Travel (4 pages). This looks at the topic, and its effects and drawbacks. Why would time travel be in your campaign; paradoxes; ways the PCs could break your campaign using time travel, and what you can do about that.
These are inexpensive, well-written in a chatty sort of style, and full of options a GM can apply selectively to his campaign.
For me, though – like most of my RPG collection – these are books I dip into for ideas every now and then, rather than keep on hand during actual play, or even campaign creation. Most of my SW games convert an existing setting to the SW rules, rather than create one from scratch; and the more I become familiar with the rules, the less I feel the need for a bestiary or a gear book.