Review: Bill Coffin’s Septimus

Posted: 23 November 2011 in Reviews
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Bill Coffin’s Septimus is an Open D6 campaign setting from West End Games. 54 MB PDF, 366 pages. (Bill Coffin is probably best-known for his work at Palladium prior to this opus.)

SETTING (95 pages)

Most SF RPGs are set some time after the collapse of the last great stellar empire, as fledging worlds re-emerge into space. Septimus is set during the collapse itself, as the mighty Seventh Empire implodes under its own weight, and the bold and cunning join the mass exodus to Septimus. The breakdown of hyperspace travel is cutting off many worlds from the Empire, abandoning them to an uncertain fate.

Septimus itself is a Dyson Sphere constructed by a vanished alien race; a remote, high-tech sanctuary for those fleeing the dissolution of the Empire. The PCs are tough and resourceful enough to have braved numerous dangers on their way to Septimus, and lucky enough to survive the final jump into the interior of the sphere itself.

Inside Septimus is a habitable environment covering the interior of a shell one AU in radius, equivalent in surface area to millions of Earthlike worlds.

Freeman Dyson didn’t actually intend the spheres which bear his name to be solid shells, but that’s how fiction and games have interpreted them ever since, so let’s roll with it. The game mentions a number of the physics problems a solid shell causes, but handwaves them away with the statement "a vanished alien race did it", which is the SF equivalent of the more common "a wizard did it".

This chapter gives the history of the Seventh Empire and the Sindavar Extent, a sect which discovered Septimus; the hardships the PCs must have overcome to reach it; its many paradoxes. The Extent now controls Septimus, but their exposure to alien technology has transformed them into something unsettling. The chapter includes maps of the Extent’s capital city of Arcopolis, which is a giant arcology full of citizens leading lives of pampered indolence, while around its edge are post-apocalyptic warrior tribes, albeit ones with their own, smaller, cities. The maps essentially zoom out from the core of the city, gradually revealing more and more of the surrounding area; I would have found the chapter easier to understand if it had been structured differently, with a top-level overview first. As it is, I will need to read it several times to grasp it properly; I’m still trying to figure out who Steel Helix are, and why they attacked Arcopolis. Scales on the maps would have helped, too.

There are labyrinths in the wastelands outside Arcopolis, the remains of machine-built nanofactories, in effect laced with traps and treasure if you fancy a spot of SF dungeon-crawling.

There are five major factions as well as the Extent fighting over who gets to control Septimus, and each gets a capsule description. These factions inhabit a number of planets and moons which orbit the central star of the system, but inside the Dyson Sphere itself. Conflict between the factions, and the general lawlessness inside the Sphere caused by its huge size, has attracted mercenaries and pirates of all descriptions. The worlds inside the sphere are described too, along with their satellites.

The number seven crops up repeatedly; the Seventh Empire, its seven ages, its seven astrological regions, the seven cities, the seven leaders of the Extent’s Cadre, and so on.

It seems the PCs are  intended to start out in Arcopolis, and work their way outwards.

D6 SYSTEM (29 pages)

This will be familiar to anyone who played WEG’s Star Wars. Characters have attributes and skills rated in terms of die codes – one might have Strength 3D, and Lift 3D+2, for example. "D" is shorthand for a normal, six-sided die, which is all you need to play.

When you try to do something, you roll the relevant dice and try to equal or exceed the target number of your chosen task. One of the dice you roll is always a wild die, which explodes; if you roll a 6, you keep the 6 and roll again. If you roll a 1 on the wild die, though, some sort of critical failure occurs and the GM complicates your character’s life.

Characters also have one or more Fate Points. A PC may spend a Fate Point to double all his attributes, skills etc. for one round. If this is done with heroic motivations, the PC gets that point back at the end of the session; if it is done with evil intent, he loses the point and gains one point of Corruption; if it’s done with a neutral intent, he loses the point. If he is heroic at a dramatically appropriate moment, he gets the point back, plus a bonus point.

Additionally, you acquire corruption each time you modify your body or brain with alien technology, or each time you use cloning, personality upload etc. to cheat death. As your Corruption score grows, your modifications start to malfunction, then you start getting blackouts during which you do nasty things but have no memory of them afterwards. Gain enough Corruption, and your PC becomes an evil NPC controlled by the GM. Corruption points cannot ever be removed. It’s a bit like Insanity in Call of Cthulhu.

Characters also have Character Points, which can be used either to improve abilities between sessions, or to gain a temporary boost within a session; typically they gain 6-8 per session.

A character who is injured attempts to resist with a Strength roll; if the damage inflicted exceeds his Strength roll, he is injured – the more he missed by, the greater the injury.

CHARACTERS (13 pages)

Characters are based on templates, which allocate dice to attributes and skills – one might have Strength 3D, and Lift 3D+2, for example. "D" is shorthand for a normal, six-sided die, which is all you need to play. Alternatively, you can build a character from scratch using the point-buy rules here – I’ve always found it easier to modify a template for my own characters, and my players prefer to take a template and run with it. There are more templates in the book than PCs in the typical party, and of course they can be used for NPCs as well.

Alternatively, you can build a character from scratch using the point-buy rules here – I’ve always found it easier to modify a template for my own characters, and my players prefer to take a template and run with it. There are more templates in the book than PCs in the typical party, and of course they can be used for NPCs as well.

Point-buy follows the usual sequence; you spent points to buy skills and attributes; you can also buy Boons (Edges, Advantages, Feats, call them what you will), or get more points by taking Banes (Hindrances, Disadvantages).

One unusual attribute is Resources, which replaces keeping track of money in the game – if you want to buy something, it has a target number, and you make a Resources roll to see if you can get it.

There is also a Corruption Buffer, which represents how much cybernetic or genetic modification your character can take before he starts to become corrupted by it. You can hold this in reserve for later use, or take mods initially.

To support roleplaying the character, the player then chooses two demeanours from a list of 32 – these are tags like Aggressive or Leisurely, with no real mechanical influence on the game – and one motivation such as Power, Revenge, or Professionalism, which describes your character’s core reason for being and adventuring. Again, this is about roleplaying, there are no mechanical advantages or disadvantages.

I should mention that characters are human, although possibly modded being recognition with nanotech or gengineering; there are no extant alien races in the setting, just extinct ones.

SKILLS (72 pages)

I must admit, a 72-page skills section is a red flag for me. It suggests that characters, and therefore the game, are going to be more complex than I like. (Remember, what I usually play – Savage Worlds, THW, OD&D – is characterised by simple rules.)

There are dozens of skills listed, and each one occupies the better part of a page, thanks to details on typical target numbers for tasks, and modifiers for circumstances such as availability or otherwise of suitable tools.

BOONS AND BANES (43 pages)

We’re still in character creation territory here, with a list of Boons including the usual ones like Alertness, Jack of All Trades or Contacts, and Banes such as Addiction, Greed, or a Dependent. A number of them have non-standard names – what most games call Luck, for example, Septimus calls Instant Karma – but that’s just cosmetic. Most of them are available in different levels, with different points costs or bonuses attached.

Boons can also be used to gain non-standard pieces of equipment such as a starship, a relic which aids psychic powers, a robot sidekick, or a small private base.

Ones which particularly intrigued me:

  • Allies are rated like chess pieces depending on how expensive they are; Pawns are non-combatant extras, Bishops are adventurers like yourself, Knights are adventurers better than yourself, and Rooks are NPCs with others under their command. It’s unclear whether the ally improves as your character does. There are also Companions and Guardian Angels, who are different versions of Allies, and that’s a common theme in both Skills and this section; things I would expect to be a single skill, boon or bane are split into several related items.
  • Quick Thinking guarantees the player a minimum time to discuss and plan with other players, however much time pressure the characters are under. I don’t feel the need for this mechanism – my handwave is to assume that the PCs spend much of their leisure time making contingency plans. ("OK, pop quiz: We’re all captured and suspended upside down in a mine shaft, what do we do?")
  • True Love grants bonuses both to the character and his or her beloved so long as they are together.
  • Jinxed is a kind of anti-luck; the GM gains the right to overrule successful dice rolls the character makes.
  • Pacifism has an unusual penalty; if you act violently, the next few character points you earn are lost, as you are too busy beating yourself up over it to learn anything.
  • A Svengali is a mentor who has given in to the Dark Side, and has painful plans for you.

NANOTECH (23 pages)

Nanomods are effectively more boons, which you buy with corruption points rather than character points. This is why you might want to buy a corruption buffer as one of your boons. In general terms, they are built-in equipment. Ones that stood out for me:

  • Action Tether allows you to string together a sequence of actions (typically melee attacks) and execute them as one. You make a single die roll; if it succeeds, all the actions in the tether succeed; if it fails, they all fail, but you are still committed to them.
  • Assimilator gathers raw materials from the environment and automatically repairs your wounds, or potentially your death.

Towards the end of this chapter I started mentally creating characters from Iain Banks’ Culture novels using the Boons and Nanotech options. It was a pretty good match.

GENOTECH (16 pages)

Like Nanotech, but with different modifications. I especially liked extra body part. I could have all kinds of fun with that. Especially since it doesn’t have to be a human body part.

This section includes a number of things like Intangibility, Invisibility and Teleportation that seemed more like psionic powers to me than genetic engineering.

METAPHYSICS (14 pages)

This is the psionics chapter – what used to be called the Force in the D6 system, back when it was Star Wars. The psionic skills are limited in number:

  • Channel focusses energy to increase or decrease damage.
  • Sense detects things and influences others ("These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.") It essentially modifies skill levels used for perception or interpersonal tasks.
  • Transform moves things around, or changes their innate characteristics. ("I find your lack of faith disturbing.")

There’s no list of psychic powers as such, hence the short length of the chapter; you can do whatever you want, but the target number for the effect you’re after is worked out from a detailed description of what you want to do, and tables of difficulty numbers for each component of that.

Psychic characters should thus figure out a few standard powers they will use regularly, and note down the difficulties. At the end of the section is a list of a dozen or so example powers, covering most of the basics – healing people, hurting them, and reading their minds.

HARDWARE (42 pages)

This is the gear you can buy in the Extent’s territory. I looked forward to this more than I usually do to an equipment chapter, because of the entertaining ideas earlier on. However, there isn’t much unusual; the basic toolkits, spacesuits, slugthrowers, energy weapons, powered armour, robots and vehicles that you’d expect in an SF game.

The usual gear lists are followed by the Megascale Construction section, which is not so much stuff for PCs to buy as technology which is part of the game environment itself, intended to provide the Not-Kansas factor in the GM’s hands; an example is the farcasters, large teleport platforms which have replaced vehicles except for sporting and military purposes.

I was disappointed in this section. It looks like hardware takes a back seat to nanomods and genomods in the game.

TEMPLATES (49 pages)

Here are two dozen templates, suitable as NPCs or beginning characters. Regular readers will know how much I like to see this in a book, and D6 as a system had it from the beginning.

Eight of the templates are natives of the Sindavar Extent, eight are from the outland resistance to that polity, and eight are newcomers recently arrived from outside the sphere. They include the usual SF tropes – free trader, mercenary, scout, noble and so on – as well as a few non-standard ones: The Avatar, an AI consciousness lurking in the sphere’s datanet; the Synthient, android hyper-specialist; the Hardcase, a personality in a robot body; the Hyperion, a living computer along the lines of Frank Herbert’s Mentats.

Each template has a description of the type of person it represents, ideas for how it might be connected to the others in the party, a tagline or common saying, and a fully-statted character sheet.

The book closes with an index and the Open Gaming Licence. No advice on running a campaign, no sample adventure, no bestiary.

CONCLUSIONS

It’s tempting to compare this to WEG’s Star Wars game, Larry Niven’s Ringworld (and the Chaosium RPG set on it), and also to Bob Shaw’s novel Orbitsville, which has a similar premise to Septimus.

The rules are good, but not good enough to wean me off my favourites. The setting is generally well-written, although there are some parts which are disjointed, or apparently missing (that could just be me missing them, mind); however, it’s a high-tech dystopia inside a post-apocalyptic dystopia inside a collapsing-galactic-empire dystopia, and that just doesn’t do it for me, I’m afraid.

Rating: 2 out of 5; it gets docked a point for missing a number of things I would expect to see in a work like this. I don’t see myself using any of it for current or future campaigns.

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