Review: Interstellar Overthruster

Posted: 20 July 2016 in Reviews

This is a 63 page A5-or-so booklet from Albatross Press, written by Jed McClure and illustrated by Ezra Clayton Daniels. As it says on the cover, it is a set of hexcrawl rules for uncharted space. As an added bonus, I’ll also talk about the matching campaign seed, A Star for Queen Zoe, same format but only 35 pages.

Interstellar Overthruster

This attracted my attention because of how it’s intended to be used; the idea is that you generate your campaign’s sector of space on the fly, at the table, using dice, hex paper and other stationery supplies – you need a couple of different coloured pens and something to colour in the hexes as you go.

Now, be warned, creating random sectors is all IO does, so you will need another RPG for characters, combat both personal and space, chases, and whatnot. As written, IO assumes that you’re using something Old School or a retroclone – Traveller, Thousand Suns, Stars Without Number, that kind of thing – but really anything will work, so long as the mini-game that is IO can be swapped for any space exploration rules your RPG might have.

IO’s approach has several advantages. First, the GM has minimal prep work; at most, you need a homeworld and a reason for the PCs to be exploring – A Star for Queen Zoe addresses both, more of that below.

Second, neither the GM nor the players have any setting to learn, except maybe the campaign seed. The rest of the setting emerges in play. (It is assumed a previous interstellar empire collapsed, and the PCs’ homeworld is just re-emerging into space – a standard SF trope.)

However, if you use it as designed, the GM has to be comfortable with improvising plotlines – nobody has any idea what’s coming next.

At the table, exploration proceeds in three phases. First, the PCs scan adjacent hexes – this tells the players whether there is a system present, which matters as you can jump into an empty hex but not out again, and what zones the hex is in – more on this later as it is a cool innovation.

Second, the PCs pick a system, hyperjump there, and scan it to find what planets and lifeforms are present. This is based on a percentile die roll against a table with a full 100 different entries; as I understand the rules you have a traditional 8 x 10 hexgrid and roughly a one in three chance of a system in each hex, so you might reasonably expect to generate a number of sectors before things get repetitive. Each planet also gets a percentile roll on a table with a full 100 entries – much of the book is taken up with these tables.

Third, if the second step detected intelligent life and the PCs decide to land, they find out about local culture, technology, trade and so on. Intelligent life may be low-tech locals, whether human or alien, or it may be an outpost of another pocket empire. This is done with die rolls on half a dozen other tables, as is traditional. Finally there is another full 100 table of cosmic strangeness – the intention here is that every habitable world has something unusual and interesting about it. To an extent, these are scenario seeds, and pretty much the only part of the book that I would be cautious about letting the players see; the rest of this step could be replaced by normal world generation from the SF RPG of your choice.

There is an element of resource management to encourage the players to explore worlds that lack an obvious reward (“we need to stop and forage, we’re almost out of food”).

I mentioned zones. I’ve seen random generation of starmaps on the fly before – one of the Classic Traveller supplements had a mod for this, for example – but zones are new so far as I know. When you scan a hex, you may discover that it is part of a zone, which may be a natural phenomenon such as a nebula, a state controlled by another spacefaring race, or an area of weird energy. (You colour in zones as you scan, to keep track of what’s where, and a single hex can potentially be in several zones.) Normally I would generate all the systems in the sector, then place empires and other zones manually, but this system lets you create them on the fly, thus reducing prep time.

A Star for Queen Zoe

You could just say “you lot are the crew of a scout ship and your mission is to explore this new sector” and not worry about their homeworld, but you do need some motivation for the PCs to be exploring. You could always make up your own, which is why this is a separate booklet, but A Star for Queen Zoe details Essex, a possible homeworld for the PCs, characterised by multiple competing states, 18th century technology (limited by available materials more than knowledge), and the recent discovery of a functional starship. Queen Zoe finds herself in urgent need of an offworld colony and commissions her (hopefully) loyal PCs to find one for her, thus providing the motivation for exploration. The plotline will be familiar if you’ve read King David’s Spaceship by Jerry Pournelle.

The booklet mentions the usefulness of political developments at home while the PCs are offworld, so at first I expected something like Stars Without Numbers’ faction rules to move that forward, and was a little disappointed not to see them; but they aren’t strictly necessary.

Coda

Put these two together with the SF RPG of your choice, and you have a campaign ready to go, no prep needed beyond creating characters. That’s very attractive, and worth a tryout at some point; but as you will see next time, I have other fish to fry for the moment…

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Comments
  1. Jim says:

    If you’re super lazy like me, you use the donjon website’s random generators. He’s got a random generator for nearly anything a gamer could need. http://donjon.bin.sh/

  2. I enjoyed reading your review. It’ll go nicely with my sleazy sci-fi RPG Alpha Blue (which has a lot of random tables, but nothing like these). Thanks!

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