Review: High-Space

Posted: 1 January 2013 in Reviews

High-Space, from Storyweaver, is part Savage Worlds science fiction toolkit, part setting, and part plot point campaign overview. There are three books; the Character Analects (78 pages), the Fleet Manual (55 pages), and The Lantern (95 pages) – this last is the default setting, nicely separated from the rest of the product.

CHARACTER ANALECTS

The Future (2 pages): This explains the sub-genre of science fiction High-Space tries to emulate, and an interesting way of handling equipment in a post-scarcity economy; each item has an Acquisition Rank, to be compared to your character’s rank – you can pick up anything you want during play, but if you’re a Seasoned character with a Veteran item, people will try to take it away from you, and scenarios – not necessarily combat ones – develop as you try to hang on to it.

Character Creation (5 pages): This is mostly a recap of the standard Savage Worlds rules, with a few exceptions.

  1. You must select a culture and a career as well as a race for your character; each provides a Benefit in terms of some suitable skills or beginning gear.
  2. Equilibrium is a new secondary statistic; Extras have 0 in this, Wild Cards have one point per Rank (thus a Veteran PC has 3 Equilibrium). Equilibrium is somewhat like Sanity in Call of Cthulhu; when a PC sees something weird, alien, or gruesome he makes an Equilibrium check to avoid losing it. More on this below.
  3. Since your Culture gives you some free skills, you only have 13 skill points to allocate rather than the usual 15.
  4. As the PC is in a post-scarcity economy, he or she can have whatever gear she likes. I have a couple of players who I think would abuse this, so I might be minded to use one of my more common house rules instead; if you want a piece of equipment, make a Smarts roll to think of having packed it, otherwise it’s unavailable. ("Damn, I left it at home.")

Alien Races (2 pages): These are presented as generic "alien types" – I assume the GM and player use trappings to make them unique. The types are Amphibious, Flying, Bestial, Psychic, and Elemental. You can also use the alien races rules in Savage Worlds Deluxe.

Culture (2 pages): This essentially defines the character’s social status, be that Aspiring, Aristocrat, Beyonder, Militant, Technocrat, Theocrat or Underworld. Typically the chosen culture gives the PC basic skills worth 4 skill points – note that even with the reduced initial skill points, this means characters start 2/3 of the way through Novice. It’s starting to bug me that all the settings I pick up do that.

High-Space Skills (8 pages): This calls out minor modifications to the core rules skills, splits Piloting into three separate skills for different vehicle types, and introduces several new skills: Philosophy, Psychiatry, Programming, Security and Spacewise (basically another type of Survival). Most setting books do that; I ignore it and just use the core rules.

Careers (4 pages): Each career has prerequisites (an attribute level and/or culture) and benefits (a piece of beginning equipment with an Acquisition Rank higher than Novice, which beginning PCs can’t normally have). There are a dozen or so careers, including the standard tropes like soldier, pilot and scientist.

Core Rules Hindances and High-Space Hindrances (4 pages between them): In this setting, Doubting Thomas and Poverty are not available; there are 11 new Hindrances, focussed on adverse effects of space travel and high tech.

Core Rules Edges and High-Space Edges (4 pages between them): High-Space excludes the usual Arcane Backgrounds, Holy Warrior, Noble, Rich, Filthy Rich and Wizard. There are 19 new edges, which either grant benefits when using high-tech equipment or represent implanted gear. The Synthetic Edge allows you to have an android body, and the Positronic Node Edge means the PC is a computer programme running inside a system he owns. There is a new Arcane Background: Glanding, in which the PC’s internal organs are modified to deliver hormones into his system on demand. This uses the No Power Points setting rule and Vigour as the arcane skill; PCs begin with one power.

I especially liked Gland Injector, which allows you to inject other people with glanded hormones, and Haemo Converter, which lets you ingest blood to heal Wounds. Personally, I would have modified Rich rather than removed it and replaced it with Wealthy.

Glanding Powers (4 pages): There are 8 of these. Think of them as variants on the theme of Boost/Lower Trait.

Equilibrium (4 pages): There are various things that can force Equilibrium tests; rather than list them all, let’s just say they are unpleasant surprises. The tests are Spirit rolls, modified by circumstances, some Hindrances or Edges, and the character’s Equilibrium stat. With a raise you’re OK, with a success you’re Shaken, and with a failure you’re Shaken and keep the -2 penalty for the rest of the scene, even once you recover from Shaken. This means that the average NPC (Spirit d6, Equilibrium 0) is at best Shaken unless they Ace the roll.

Hard-Tech (2 pages): This section focusses on the game effects of various technologies, arguing (correctly I think) that how it works is a matter of trapping. Here we find notes on Glanding, Synthetics (replacing the androids and robots of the core rules), and positronic nodes, which flows nicely into the next section.

Computers (5 pages): Computer hardware may be portable or fixed, and has a single trait: Computer, ranging from d4 to d12 as usual. Both factors affect their Acquisition Rank. We then have the obligatory rules on intercepting or decrypting data, and gaining control of and manipulating computer-controlled systems.

Weaponry (3 pages): There are 23 of these, including three new types of melee weapon (shock, plasma, effect-field), advanced slugthrowers, and ranged energy weapons, divided into hard-energy (particle beams) and soft-energy (energy scramblers, which trigger Equilibrium tests). As usual for High-Space, how it works is mostly trapping.

Personal Protection (2 pages): 11 different kinds. The usual suspects; shield generators, body armour, power armour, and a new kid on the block – plasma shields, a kind of reactive armour that destroys incoming weapons or ammo.

Equipment (2 pages): 22 new items, which look to me mostly like things useful for infiltrating the Big Bad’s hideout, Mission: Impossible style – chamaeleon suits, Stealth-boosting Whisperers, and so forth.

Vehicles (2 pages): This is essentially a listing of vehicles by Acquisition Rank. You’re on your own if the players ask you how many kangaroos they can fit in a "civilian industrial vehicle". Not that I mind, but you should know what you’re getting.

XS+ Vehicles (9 pages): The bulk of this section is an abstract combat system for combat between supersonic aircraft (the typical High-Space vehicle) and possibly spacecraft as well. It makes sense that it should be abstract, because of the sheer speeds involved – military aerospace craft are tooling around at Mach 25, let’s call that 30 miles per combat round. There are also half-a-dozen sample vehicles.

FLEET MANUAL

Blast-Off! (1 page): A standard introductory page, summarising how ships are treated in High-Space (essentially, as another PC) and their importance in the game.

Acquiring Ships (2 pages): Here’s how it is; each PC has one Acquisition Point per Rank, and the party total AP defines how big and hairy their ship can be, by determining how many Edges the ship can have, and how many points it has to spend on traits. A typical group of 3-4 players would have 3 free edges and 3 trait points for their ship.

Your Starship! and Starship Creation (4 pages between them): Starships are built like characters; and yes, your PC can be a starship. They have five attributes: Manoeuvre, Computer, FTL, Displacement and Quality, all rated as  die types. Ships also have Pace (Manoeuvre plus Quality) and Toughness (Displacement plus half Quality).

  • Manouevre represents how well the ship handles; Piloting tests are limited to the ship’s Manoeuvre, and that’s harsher than it sounds, as if you run it higher than the lowest Vigour among passengers and crew, Bad Things Happen to them.
  • Computer is the ship’s ability to handle automatic onboard systems. This is a clever mechanic which eliminates the need for hordes of spacer Extras to operate the ship; the ship does the scutwork itself.
  • FTL is used for movement; in combat, a ship moves as many AU per round as its FTL die roll. Note that this means FTL speeds are variable, and in the region of half an AU per second, so ships travel a bit under five light-years per week. Say, Sol to Alpha Centauri. This doesn’t match with the travel times in the Exploration section, but perhaps ships in combat are on overdrive.
  • Displacement is the ship’s raw size, and determines how much stuff you can cram in. This is the only attribute that can’t be upgraded during play. Ships with d12 Displacement are too big to land on planets.
  • Quality is a catch-all stat referring to how well the ship is designed.

Design Edges (1 page): This reflects the ship’s original purpose – warship, liner, or whatever. The design edge chosen might give the ship a free advance on a specific attribute, a hindrance, or a Pace modifier; it also defines how many payload units and hardpoints the ship has. A minor niggle here is that it is not immediately obvious what "2 Payload per Displacement" means; but reading through the rest of the book leads me to think that it’s referring to Displacement die type, so a Displacement d8 ship with 2 Payload per Displacement would have 16 Payload in all.

Ship Hindrances (3 pages): 14 Hindrances to make your ship less shiny. As with PCs, these give you more points to improve attributes or buy Edges. I especially liked Poor Signage (-1 on Spacewise skill rolls because nobody knows where anything is) and Pulls To The left (when left unattended, the ship drifts in an annoying but predictable manner).

Ship Edges (10 pages): By this stage, you probably have a design Edge and 5 other edges to play with; three for the PCs, and two for the Hindrances you have no doubt taken. Here are three dozen Edges to choose from, including weapons, armour, computer upgrades, passenger cabins and cargo bays, mining rigs and what have you. My favourites are the Wild Card Starship, which makes the ship a Wild Card, and the Positronic Core, which allows the ship to learn from experience under some circumstances, and develop a personality. Such improvements are lost, however, if the Core is transferred to another ship.

Automatics and Overrides (1 page each): There are 9 types of automatic systems on a ship, each corresponding to a skill. Normally, the ship rolls the lower of the relevant attribute or Computer to use a system; for example, a ship with Quality d8 and Computer d6 would roll a d6 for its Passive Sensor system (equivalent to Notice skill); that system is based on the ship’s Quality (d8) but is limited to d6 by the lower Computer trait.

A crewman with skill d10 could override the automatic system and use his skill instead; if the ship had a Positronic Core and he succeeded, at the end of the session the crewman could donate one of his experience points to the ship, which it could use to improve its passive sensor trait. Note that this means ships with a Positronic Core need to track experience separately for each automatic system.

Spacefighting (2 pages): This section introduces the space combat rules, which are much like character-level combat in the core rules. A snippet under communication speeds reveals that in the High-Space universe, there are instantaneous FTL communications; most science fiction settings I’m familiar with assume that nothing travels faster than a ship.

Starship Movement (1 page): As stated above, in combat a ship rolls its FTL die type each round, and can move that many AU. If reduced to normal-space movement, the ship moves 1,000 km per point of Pace in a round, but if the Pace used exceeds 2 x passenger’s Vigour die type, they take the difference in damage each round – I’m not sure how that works, and an example would have been welcome. Weapon ranges are short (up to 1 AU), Medium (2-12 AU) or Long (12-24 AU). The combat system is said to work either with or without tactical maps; personally, I wouldn’t bother with a starship battlemat.

Combat Rounds (1 page): These work much like character combat, with initiative draws. Note that ships do not incur multi-action penalties, although characters do; should a PC ship incur those penalties, then, as a trade-off for his Wild Die?

Tactical Manoeuvres (3 pages): The ship, or its pilot, can perform a single manoeuvre each round, and 9 are presented to choose from, including masking the engine signature, active scanning, running silent and of course weapons release.

Starship Damage (3 pages): Again, much like character damage; successful attacks roll damage vs the ship’s Toughness. Success means the ship is Compromised (Shaken), a raise means it is Breached (Wounded). Each Breach causes a roll on the Ship Destruction Table, with results ranging from nothing much to total annihilation. Unless the ship is a Wild Card or PC, or the crew has the Common Bond Edge, it has no access to bennies to soak damage.

Exploration (8 pages): This talks about long-distance travel and stellar or planetary bodies, including their game effects on ships.

Hazards (3 pages): A discussion of radiation hazards, salvage, consumables, fuel and zero-g, again focussing on game effects.

THE LANTERN

In the distant future… (2 pages): Setting introduction; island nebula, far future, weird stuff happening. Moving on…

The Pan-Dominion (3 pages): This is the overarching human government of the setting; a post-scarcity society where nobody needs to work, public services are provided by AIs, and the only thing scarce enough to worry about is Astatine, essential for starship fuel. The society as described reminded me of Iain M Banks’ Culture novels.

Strange Lights (2 pages): This tantalises with hints of the Deep Space Entities found in the nebula; titanic but reclusive creatures dubbed "dragons" by the media. It also mentions Masques and the Anchora Mark, both unexplained recent happenings which the PCs may wish to investigate.

Nebulous Effects (4 pages): Here we learn of the dense clouds of dust and ionised gas in the nebula, and their effects on travel and communications.

The Sphere (2 pages): This is the local equivalent of the internet, and the main way in which PCs hook up with patrons.

The Nazmec Finds, The Confederation, Artifact Trading (6 pages total): The central mystery of the Lantern nebula is why civilisations arise there, only to die out mysteriously. The Nazmec, the Auras, the Kingdom of Kesh, the Confederation… each has arisen, ruled the Lantern for a while, and then vanished without explanation. Treasure hunters and archaeologists alike pore over their sites, looking for clues and artifacts. Each vanished species has artifacts that appeal to a different market, which is a nice touch; the Confederation left military technology, the Auras spiritual devices, and so on… These pages detail what is common knowledge, and therefore what PCs might reasonably know. The GM’s Section explains what is really going on.

Star Systems (10 pages): This is a gazetteer for the known systems of the nebula; the inhabited systems of Dupheris, Tor and Sturm, whose populations are respectively mercantile, spiritual and militaristic; and the smaller outposts, mostly mining camps, Typhon Alpha, Typhon Beta, Saturine, VK Mani. Occasus. An unusal quirk is that the system name is unrelated to those of the worlds within; normally, SF games call the whole system by the name of the most important planet, as if the USA were to be referred to as Washington or New York. But I digress.

The Commercials (2 pages): These are the five big corporate entities of the setting, of interest mainly as patrons or opponents for the PCs. While it’s entirely possible to live comfortably on handouts in the Pan-Dominion, there are people who want to do, or have, more than that; and they gravitate to the Commercials amongst other places.

The U.R.C. (1 page): This is the agency through which the Pan-Dominion seeks to control the Commercials, and force them to obey its laws; since it is funded by the Commercials, it does this with varying success.

PTILE (2 pages): The local version of Interpol. ‘Nuff said.

Council of Churches (5 pages): This is the Pan-Dominion’s state religion, incorporating all remaining human faiths. It provides (sells) Concessions, which can sometimes be used to get better treatment when arrested, as they show that the accused has already done penance for a sin and been forgiven by the divine. For example, devout witnesses might see the Concession and decide not to testify.

U.G.P. Military Forces (2 pages): These are the Armada (space navy), the Aero Corps (air force), and the Field Corps (army and wet navy). No rules here, just setting fluff.

Margin Players (4 pages): Smaller organisations that might still play a part in scenarios. The Merc List, a mercenary clearing-house and hiring hall; Jump-Miners, who handle runaway asteroids; raiders, who steal Astatine; pirates, Church pilgrims, the terrorists known as Cell-9.

GM’s Section (44 pages in all): Anything from here on is GM-only territory, so I’ll speed up and be vaguer. This explains that the setting is a sandbox in which there should be many meta-plots, each driving a plot point campaign. It covers:

  • The central meta-plot of the setting: What happened to the vanished races, and why. This is presented as an outline and overview only; it looks like the campaign will appear as a series of 20 seperately-published adventures over time. As a bonus for being a purchaser of the beta edition, I got the first adventure, Blind Threat, as a freebie; so I’ll review that later on.
  • Lantern Campaigns: Handling down time, the PCs’ group dynamics (yes, the PCs’ not the players’), patrons, technology, character death, space dragons,  the legacies of each lost civilisation.
  • Plot Hooks: Over 30 one-paragraph adventure seeds. At first glance, they look like they would need some work to flesh out.
  • Charting The Clouds (9 pages): The eight systems described in the book are only some of those present in the nebula; this final section is a random star system generator for other locations the PCs might find while exploring. That’s a common chapter in SF games, but this one is different in having detailed tables to determine what previous civilisations left behind on a given planet, what protects it, and who else is looking for it. The air-trap deserves a mention; left by an aquatic species, this lethal trap closes bulkheads at either end of a corridor, then fills it with air! Watch your players squirm!

FORMAT

The first thing that struck me was the artwork, which is stunning. It reminded me most of the visuals from the videogame Mass Effect.

The layout is generally good, making good but restrained use of colour, and with a font size easily legible even to my aging eyes. However, it’s often hard to tell where one section ends and another begins, and personally I would have put in another layer of headings – for example, half a dozen of the sections in The Lantern are about organisations, and could have been grouped together under the heading “Organisations”; structure like that helps me understand a product.

One oddity for an SW product is that distances and ranges are listed in the Metric system (kilometres) whereas SW normally uses Imperial (miles).

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

High-Space needs another editing pass. The index has some incorrect page numbers, and there are numerous minor typographical and grammatical errors. There are also a number of things that don’t match my understanding of science, which is admittedly imperfect. That’s true of many games, but High-Space is explicitly aimed at "harder New Space Opera, Renaissance Scifi, as well as gritty sci-fi thrillers", so the mismatch sticks out more. Both of these are most evident in The Lantern, possibly because that is the part of the product that wasn’t available in beta for gamers to pick through before final release.

I also have issues with overuse of hyphens, and not sorting things like alien types into alphabetical order, but maybe that’s just me.

CONCLUSIONS

Throughout, High-Space stays close to the Fast! Furious! Fun! mantra of Savage Worlds; it avoids the temptation to drown the game in a morass of rules and special cases. It does this by treating how things work as a trapping.

It’s also nicely split up; I could use any one of the three books as a plug-in to my game, without using the other two, with very little work.

I like the Fleet Manual’s starship creation rules, and the attempt at modelling a post-scarcity economy – the thing I always wanted Star Trek to explore, which it never did, was how exactly the Federation economy worked without money and without any scarce commodities to be traded.

I don’t like it when settings start characters above Novice rank or introduce new skills I don’t see the need for; maybe that’s just me as well. If I were running High-Space, I’d houserule both of those away.

Overall Rating: I’m not sure whether this is 4 out of 5 or 5 out of 5, so I’ll split the difference and call it 4.5 out of 5 – a Halfway Station first, a fractional rating! I want to start using the starship design rules straight away, and I can see myself adopting a lot of the Character Analects; but the default setting doesn’t really sing to me. Overall, a fine effort, though.

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Comments
  1. raikenclw says:

    I have the Beta version of the two rulebooks.

    I didn’t like them splitting up those SW skills, either. Were I to run such a game, I would just assume that all Skills were focused on the highest tech item available (gravitic drive vehicles for Pilot, multi-wheeled AWD vehicles for Drive, fusion power for Repair, etc). Additional familiarity with lower tech items for each Skill would be an Edge, familiarity ONLY with lower tech items would be a Hindrance.

    I also didn’t really like either Acquisition or Equilibrium, mainly because both of these are based upon out-of-game Rank, rather than “actual” in-game status and experience. Why should a Veteran scumbucket merc have exactly as much right to Item X as a Veteran merchant prince? Why should a Heroic Bookkeeper from Core Sector be as immune to the Mindboggling Ancient Ruins as an Heroic Fringer (who saw a set just like them last year, six systems over thattaway?)

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