In a Nutshell: Science-fiction skirmish wargaming/RPG hybrid (or "immersion game" as THW calls it), 176 page PDF, $20 at time of writing. Superb for solo or co-operative play.
And the name? "5150" is the section of the New Hope City penal code under which your characters are most likely to be arrested. Nice touch, that.
ON A SOAPBOX
Before I go on, if you haven’t tried a THW game before, you need to understand something about the reaction system, which replaces the more traditional turn sequence.
Let’s consider a typical Warhammer 40,000 game between myself (Tau) and my son (Blood Angels). It goes like this: The Death Company use their jetpacks to move in close, hose the Fire Warriors down with bolter fire, then charge into close combat and hack them to pieces with chainswords. Meanwhile, the Tau are standing around like lemons, patiently waiting for their turn and wondering if any of them will live to see it. The basic turn sequence for tabletop wargames hasn’t changed much since H G Wells codified it in Little Wars, almost exactly a century ago.
Now, under a THW rules set, it would go more like this: The Death Company starts to move, coming into view and triggering a chain of reaction tests. The Tau see them coming and open fire on them before they finish moving. Some are injured or killed, and the rest might carry on, duck back into cover, or even retire from combat. Those who carry on will return fire, with like effects on the Tau. Once you’re used to the system, it flows much more quickly than W40K; a key factor is that you can react to what I’m doing while I’m still trying to do it, just like in real life, and as a bonus this means neither of us spends half the game doing nothing but wait for the other to finish his turn.
Another key factor is that only the Star – your personal avatar on the tabletop – has free will; the rest of your troops move entirely as reaction tests dictate, which makes it very easy to play in solo or co-op modes, although it works just fine head-to-head as well.
You will see quite a bit more of this system in detailed encounter writeups, so I’ll limit myself to the the new, the different and the deprecated here. The game itself is about your Star and his or her Grunts (NPCs) trying to make a living in New Hope City, capital of the planet New Hope. You can play isolated street fights, or join these encounters together into a campaign. Most weapons are late 20th or early 21st century items, but there are 5 alien races and a range of cybernetic enhancements.
- Hit location. I’m not normally a fan of hit location as it slows down play, but because it replaces the earlier die roll against weapon Impact to determine wound type, it’s not as bad as it could be.
- Bleeder. This is a wound status slightly better than Out Of the Fight, but still dangerous. The difference between the two is that you can try to heal a Bleeder during an encounter, whereas someone OOF won’t heal until the next session, if then.
- Buildings. Earlier THW offerings had very simple rules for combat in buildings, essentially treating them as areas of difficult terrain and cover. The rules in NB are those available on the THW website for a while as a web supplement; they break up buildings into areas, with more attention paid to doors and windows. The main effect of this I’ve noticed so far is that it’s now easier to pin down the opposition by using a well-placed figure to command the hallway. There are 10 or so sample layouts for common buildings.
- A very simple economic system, in which anything you might want, from a communicator to a spaceship, is called an "Item". You start with 15-20 Items, and can get more in play – you can lose them too, either by theft from your home base, or by using them to pay fines. The guiding principle is that shooting things is fun, keeping track of equipment and funds is boring. Music to my ears.
- Police encounters. While you and the opposition are merrily blasting away at each other, the police might well roll up to arrest you both. This may lead to familiarity with other new rules about court cases and prison breaks. Even if you escape, the police will remember your criminal acts and will keep trying to arrest you until your case is tried.
- Cybertech enhancements. Only available to humans ("Basics"), make you better at some things but worse at others, notably interpersonal skills.
- Media crews (optional; the Star and his allies may be a media crew looking for news); these are of course related to the Fame or Notoriety of the Star, which in turn influences his chance of being hired to do a job.
- The rules are generally tightened up, easier to understand, yet expanded, especially compared to the last edition of 5150 I bought. The types and outcomes of reaction tests have been tweaked, but that happens with every new THW game, and is the main way in which differences between troop types are reflected in the game.
- This new offering has more powerful Stars, slightly more complex combat, and streamlined skills (LTL had dozens, too many for me, while 5150: NB has only four). Of course, many THW offerings have no skills at all – All Things Zombie, for example.
- Characters, at least Stars, are a little more complex than usual for THW, with specific professions; but given this side of 5150 is slanted towards roleplaying, that is understandable. They still pass the acid test of fitting comfortably on a 3" x 5" index card.
- Medical attention now depends on both the skill of the healer and the Rep of the patient, not just one person’s Rep.
- New Hope City is split into a range of areas, with different encounters based on where you are and what time of day it is. Previous THW products I’ve used treated cities as homogenous.
- Character advancement has a minor change, but one that I like; your Rep or skills can now only drop if you fail to achieve your objective in an encounter. Previously, I lost a lot of Rep and other stats from my Stars even if they were winning, which I really did not like; and once at Rep 5, your chances of increasing or decreasing a stat were the same, so over time Stars would stabilise at Rep 5. In fact, this has been the biggest turn-off for me in THW’s offerings to date. Maybe I’ve been getting it wrong all along? If so, it was better explained this time.
- PEFs no longer have randomly-determined Rep; they are all Rep 4. This will speed things up, I think.
- There’s a subtle but useful change to the QRS sheets; the reference sheet for each race or class now has a small table for dicing up randomly-encountered beings of that type, which reduces the amount of flipping back and forth through the rulebook in mid-game.
- The biggest change, though, is the In Sight test, which is now Rep d6 counting successes (rolls of 1-3) rather than rolling 2d6 vs Rep. On the plus side, this makes it easier to work out who shoots next; on the minus side, it’s more dice to roll and slightly slower in play.
Bugs, military units, and the rules for deciding who is at war with whom. These are all part of 5150: Star Army, the companion game covering platoon-level military actions. Ed Teixeira, the boss of THW, says that he took this step because he noticed his customers were divided between those who wanted full-on military games (Starship Troopers) and those who wanted to play a small gang of scoundrels on the make (Firefly), and wanted to give each group the kind of game they want to play.
Like all THW games, this has a very clear and simple layout, and I for one like it like that. Colour is limited to the covers, but there are small black and white CGI-style illustrations, and diagrams to illustrate points of the rules, every page or two.
SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT
There’s a long and noble tradition in SF of using weapons you can see on the news every day; from H Beam Piper’s Future History stories, still using smokeless powder well into the 5th millennium, to the Winchester ’73s and Steyr AUGs in Firefly; but given the space given over to cybertech enhancements and alien races, a few more advanced weapons would have been welcome. I can easily handwave this, saying that a Big Ass Pistol is really a Heavy Blaster Pistol, or that law on New Hope forbids any lethal weapon developed later than the 1970s; but it still feels a bit of a let-down. I already want Star Army for the bugs, and judging by the snippets in the SA-NB conversion rules, SA has more ray guns in it.
I’m a fan of THW’s products, as you may have noticed, and I’m looking forward to playing the kind of SF adventures I want to play using the Chain Reaction system, rather than trying to cobble together bits of, errm, three different games at last count into something that will do the job. I’m even tempted to move the Arioniad out of Savage Worlds and into 5150 permanently; but let’s not get ahead of ourselves, let’s play it for a while first.
You could also easily use these rules for modern gang warfare, with or without cops; adventures in the style of Cyberpunk or Shadowrun; or any SF skirmish that doesn’t rely on powered armour and energy weapons. You need to do some extra work if you want to play full-on military conflict (that’s what 5150: Star Army is for), or adventure outside the city.
Playing a THW game feels more like “being there” than any other tabletop games I know, which intrigues me given the relative simplicity of the rules. This one is no exception.
Overall Rating: 5 out of 5.