Review: Strange Stars

I’m still looking for the perfect space opera setting, and I was intrigued by the approach this one takes. So…

In a Nutshell: 32-page system-agnostic space opera setting book from Armchair Planet, written by Trey Causey. $10 PDF or $16 softcover at time of writing.

CONTENT/FORMAT

I’m noticing more and more setting products designed without a specific RPG in mind, and this is one of them. It’s hard to separate content from format for this book, because every concept has an illustration, almost always in full colour. With the exception of a how-to-use-this-book page, it’s all written from an in-game perspective, so you can leave it on the table for the players to browse through.

The cover is an obvious homage to Star Frontiers, TSR’s space opera game from the 1980s. (People have tried to explain to me why this game is so good for years, and I still don’t understand; but it clearly has a lot of nostalgic fans about my age who do.)

Inside, you get the following, but not necessarily in this order:

  • A two-page historical overview of the four epochs of human space. Earth is long-lost, and nobody is sure where it is or how long ago humans went to the stars. Since then, two galactic empires (the Archaic Oikumene and the Radiant Polity) have risen and fallen, and the modern age is one of successor states partially filling the vacuum left by the Polity.
  • Full-page illustrations of a dozen archetypical characters, each annotated with explanations of their gear and unique physical attributes.
  • Commentary on the three classes of sophont: Biologics (meat), moravecs (metal), and infosophonts (substrate-independent data).
  • Commentary on hyperspace travel; maps, including a top-level one with half a dozen regions, then slightly more detailed ones for each of those regions.
  • Paragraph descriptions and thumbnail illustrations for 3-6 places of interest and/or indigenous species in each region.
  • Paragraph descriptions of the most wanted criminals (individuals or organisations) in known space, some inimical species and psionics.
  • A short glossary and pronunciation guide.
  • A page of about 40 McGuffins for scenarios: People, places, cargo, things.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

The author is already working on conversions for FATE and Stars Without Number; I’d be interested in a Savage Worlds port, obviously, but that’s just laziness on my part – you could merge Strange Stars and The Last Parsec seamlessly, no-one would ever find the join.

The other thing one might wish for is an adventure generator; there’s one on the author’s blog, along with numerous other goodies and expanded information on many of the ideas in the book.

CONCLUSIONS

If Dorling-Kindersley made RPG setting books, they would look like this. As the book itself explains, this is a setting book written from the bottom up; interesting pictures and semi-random snippets of information to entice the GM into creating the setting himself.

It does what it sets out to do; there are a lot of adventure hooks crammed into the book, and it’s also fun playing spot-the-reference – there’s everything from Jack Vance to Iain M Banks by way of George Lucas; a heady mix indeed. Most SF games and game settings I’m familiar with don’t feel very science-fictional now; they’re grounded in the tropes of the Golden Age and the standard sci-fi setting. Strange Stars, with its asteroid-sized hyper-intelligences, drugged teenage slave-soldiers in powered armour, and post-human entities endlessly reincarnating amnesiac criminals, feels fresh on my jaded palate.

There’s debate on the internet about whether 30 pages is worth $10, but personally I’d say it is – colour art isn’t cheap, and this book is packed with it.

However, the acid test: Will I use it? I’m honestly not sure. That probably says more about my present parlous state of motivation than anything; you could pick this up and be running a Savage Worlds game in the setting in less than an hour, with or without the Sci-Fi Companion, and I may well do that very thing over the summer holidays.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5, and it’s growing on me.

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3 thoughts on “Review: Strange Stars

  1. It also has a very clear homage to the Talislanta.com setting with the races of the 7 Kingdoms reimagined into a SF setting. Not so much as to be plagiarism, more a loving nod.
    I like Strange Stars and I shall indeed probably run it with Savage Worlds or d6.

  2. Thanks for pointing me toward Strange Stars. I like it a lot and when I get my next paycheck I’ll be buy both the PDF and the book.
    One thing that I found especially interesting is the distinction which the setting makes between merely-sapient robots (moravec?) and hyper-sapient infosophonts. I find the fact that this makes 70s scifi – with its robots that think like (and no better than) humans – unexpectedly prophetic in matching modern robotics theory almost funny. It wasn’t until I read Daniel H. Wilson’s Robopocalypse that it occurred to me that such a distinction was possible. I don’t know why this realization never occured to me previously, actually. Any independently-awakened mind would perceive an infosophont as an “enemy alien,” even if that mind resided inside a robot. Getting one’s electronic mind overwritten by a more powerful program would be just as much of a death sentence for a robotic sapient as getting one’s squishy bio-brain blown out would be for a biological sapient. Actually, it would be *scarier* . . . your robot body would go on living, occupied by your murderer.

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