Review: Scientorium

“Sweet is the harbour, but Death is the ferryman.” – Tsolyani proverb,

In a Nutshell: Plot Point Campaign and mini-setting for Savage Worlds’ Last parsec framework setting; assumes you have SW Deluxe and the Science Fiction Companion.

Things you should know going in:

  • The campaign relies heavily on players being able to separate what they know from what their characters know, and have the characters act only on the latter.
  • There are a lot of obstacles in the players’ way, realistically so given the backstory, and they will need to be more resolute than my lot usually are to reach the end of the story.
  • You’re going to lose at least one PC during the course of the campaign. I guarantee it.

CONTENTS

Characters (2 pages): This is the only chapter safe for players to read, and I’d think twice before letting them near it. If they do read it, they will learn that their PCs are going to explore an ancient structure – since that is written on the back cover, it’s not much of a spoiler. There’s a summary of background information which most characters in the setting don’t know, and half-a-dozen suggested character types (no statblocks, but you could easily use the ones in the companion Archetypes product).

A Galactic Wonder (8 pages): This gives an overview of the Scientorium itself, an orbital structure left behind by a long-vanished alien race. Basically, it’s a megadungeon in spaaaace. I like it.

Setting Rules (11 pages): The mechanic that intrigues me most is that for Doubt – because although the players know about the Scientorium, their characters doubt its existence. I was wondering by this point how that worked, but there’s a straightforward rule for handling it, treating it much like Fatigue. There’s also additionial information on how the Scientorium’s systems operate – and how they malfunction. There’s a lot of virtual reality in the Scientorium, which makes it easy to drop any sort of adventure into this particular setting; I always liked the episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation that focussed on the holodeck, and you can go nuts with that here. The down side of that is I’m not sure I have the creativity for it, but I could always mine other setting books for ideas. In fact, the Last Parsec as a whole encourages that thought.

Palimpsest (30 pages): Here is a plot point campaign in 11 parts, in which the PCs are (as usual) working for JumpCorp. At first they are tasked with finding a suspected thief and running surveillance on him; he leads them to a second shady individual and his bizarre quest, which over a series of adventures leads the PCs to the Scientorium and its wonders. The epic journey in parts three and four of the series can be extended almost indefinitely, as long as the GM has stories to tell and the players remain interested; they are more a framework into which other scenarios are inserted than they are plot points in the usual sense. Part six is also amenable to this, to an extent.

Savage Tales (22 pages): Thirteen of ’em; the previous chapter suggests where in the overall story arc they should be played. The Pursuer in particular cries out to be woven into the campaign. Several of the adventures can be played before the campaign starts, foreshadowing later events and introducing the PCs to people they will get to know much better in the main plotline (which I would definitely do), or extend the campaign after its official end (which I probably would not). I approve, and encourage other authors to do likewise.

Bestiary (9 pages): Two xenos and six sentients. One of the xenos is unusually large and complex, at six pages long.

FORMAT

Full cover covers wrapped around two-column black text with a blue and grey background (which fortunately can be suppressed using Acrobat layers). Colour illustrations every few pages. The usual Last Parsec trade dress, making the product look a bit like a tablet PC, which is the standard for SF RPG products at the moment.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

Like Leviathan, this book refers to Known Space having an edge, and it refers to a target being “three systems away”; I don’t see how either marries up with the presumed drive system, either a place has a nav beacon or it doesn’t, and if it does, it’s one jump away.

It also talks of known space including multiple superclusters of galaxies; that puzzled me until I realised I was confusing it with the Known Worlds, which occupy a much smaller volume.

Scientorium’s size is quoted as different figures in the text and illustration, no biggie.

At various places in the text things like slow drugs or low-pasage canisters are mentioned, apparently relying on the reader to have a knowledge of the Dumarest saga or (more likely) some incarnation of Traveller.

I’m not sure what the impact of million-Gauss magnetic fields on personal equipment and humanoid flesh would be, but I suspect there’s fun to be had with the field strength that this book hasn’t explored – I need to check that out before the players run into them.

CONCLUSIONS

Of all the promised Last Parsec materials, this is the one I was looking forward to the most. The author, Timothy Brian Brown, has a name I recognise from the heady days of GDW, so my expectations were high – GDW was the company whose designers seemed most in tune with what I wanted out of RPGs.

While the one-setting-book-per-world approach has its virtues, I want my group to wander from planet to planet, and I wanted a book to support that. This one does, although at the other extreme of world detail, namely none at all – the intermediate stops on the PCs’ voyage are left for the GM to flesh out.

While the Last Parsec line as a whole is at least partially an homage to Star Frontiers, this book harks back to different roots; the Space Opera adventure Vault of the Ni’er Queyon, or Traveller’s multi-adventure arc culminating in The Secret of the Ancients. There are also, at least for me, echoes of Chaosium’s Ringworld.

Using my usual yardstick of one session every other week, this book would last my group roughly a year of real time, and lift the PCs from Novice to halfway through Veteran Rank.

Overall: I’m dithering between 4 out of 5 and 5 out of 5. Of all the Last Parsec materials to date, this is the one I’m most likely to use, although I would want to sprinkle other adventures around it and before it, gradually leading the players to the start of the plot point campaign. It’s a good keel for a campaign, but I’ll want to add more to it.

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