Review: High-Space 2nd Edition

Posted: 13 December 2017 in Reviews
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In a Nutshell: Transhuman SF setting for Savage Worlds by StoryWeaver, $20 at time of writing, 246 page PDF.

CONTENTS

I’ll consider this not only on its own, but by comparison to the first edition, which I reviewed here.

PanDominion (80 pages): Almost immediately we see changes between the first and second editions. The first edition was set in The Lantern, a frontier island nebula dominated by the search for technological treasures left behind by long-vanished alien races. Here, we see the PanDominion proper, getting 80 pages instead of two. This is a post-scarcity society on a galactic scale, and the PCs are the throwbacks, bored with the easy lives led by the masses. The PanDo can’t allow these misfits to disrupt the peaceful harmony of their society, but on its edges, there are enemies to fight, dangerous new worlds to explore – and the misfits are the ones mentally suited to deal with the dirty work. Picture the Special Circumstances agents in Iain M Banks’ Culture novels and you won’t go far wrong. As a concept for the setting, this has a lot of promise.

This chapter begins with a section called Know Your PanDo, several pages of short paragraphs, each on a specific topic, with a page reference for a fuller treatment. That is a nice touch. It’s followed by some news bulletins written from an in-game viewpoint, summary data on the common species of the PanDo, the external threats that hold it together, timelines, means of interstellar travel (like Mass Effect – FTL drives on ships, with wormgates for long-distance travel and colonised star systems huddling around the wormgates), important sectors of space and capsule summaries of what’s in them, key planets, the PanDo government and how it works, the local version of the internet (called ‘the Sphere’), the Culture-style AIs known as ‘Minds’, with discussions both of the general situation and individual Minds the PCs are likely to encounter, the United Resources Corporation and other megacorps, law enforcement, the Contracts Guild, the Merc List, and the Council of Churches.

How a post-scarcity economy works in the game deserves a few notes. Basically, as your character advances in Rank, he or she is perceived as more valuable by the AIs that run the PanDo, and is therefore trusted with more complex and expensive gear. However, second edition High-Space moves away from the full-on post-scarcity trope and adds CBTs, a pseudo-currency used by the AIs to allocate resources. I think this was explained better in the first edition, but I admit I haven’t reread it to confirm that.

This section is also sprinkled with the obligatory short pieces of fiction.

Agencies (8 pages): These are civilian PanDo organisations PCs might find themselves working for – Insight, which assesses new species as potential PanDo members; the Integration Agency, which brings such species aboard; and Intervention, which does whatever is necessary to protect the PanDominion. The PCs are most likely to work for Intervention, which is pretty much the game version of Special Circumstances.

Militant Arms (12 pages): These are PanDo’s military ‘agencies’ – Armada, the navy, which explores, deters enemies,provides humanitarian aid, and enforces internal security; Field, the ground forces, which do what they have always done; PsiOps, psionic spies and ninjas. Armada is very close to Star Fleet in most of the Star Trek series.

This chapter also includes PanDo’s guiding principle for interspecies contact, the Doctrine of Least Resistance. This is useful to the GM by defining what PanDo will do – or order the PCs to do – in various circumstances.

Xenofile (42 pages): Unlike the first edition, which gave you five basic templates and left you to get on with it, second edition High-Space gives you details on eight PanDo member races (including humans), overviews of six more member species and eight allied ones, and three non-playable races; the enigmatic starfish, the hostile strozi, and the equally hostile nuclarine.

Character Creation (14 pages): This begins by listing all the standard skills and how they are modified for use in the setting, and some new ones; Psychiatry (the mental equivalent of physical Healing), Security (Smarts-based and replaces Lockpicking), Spacewise (a space-based version of Survival). I’m not sure of the value of listing all the existing skills, so maybe I should read that bit again.

There are seven new Hindrances, including Synthetic (you’re actually an android); Doubting Thomas and Poverty are not allowed. Sidelined is interesting; you count as one Rank lower than you actually are for purposes of acquiring and keeping gear.

New Edges relate to using technology. My favourites are the Glanding Edges, representing implants which allow the user to trigger hormones and pheromones at will, but there are also Hacking Edges for dealing with computers, Edges for Synthetics which make them stronger, more flexible and so on, and general Edges which usually involve an implant of some kind. A simple system, yet flexible.

The backgrounds and their mandated skills have vanished, making character design much closer to standard Savage Worlds.

Gear and Gadgets (20 pages): As this is a post-scarcity society, access to equipment is limited by weight (you still have to carry it) and Rank (the AIs running the place have to think you’re worthy to carry it). Regular readers will know I am not enamoured of Gear chapters, so I’ll mention the drones, the Positronic Warbeast and the armour-penetrating motorised teeth for the Shako species, and move on. The range of gear is much expanded from the first edition, especially in regard to devices from non-human species, and helps convey the feel of the setting.

Fleet Manual (32 pages): By this stage of the book, the reader has seen a number of tantalising sidebars defining particular classes of ship, and this is where the stats in those start to make sense. It’s also the bit that tempted me to buy the book, as I am intrigued by the idea of PC starships, and this is the only official product I know of that includes them.

Ships in High-Space are designed much like characters. Each has a free Design Edge, denoting its original purpose and affecting its other stats. It then has five attributes – Manoeuvre (how agile the ship is), Computer (how good the autopilot and other systems are), Drive (normal-space movement), Displacement (size and payload), and Quality (how well-built it is) – and two derived stats, Pace and Toughness, calculated from their attributes, edges and hindrances. Edges are basically payload items, while hindrances are about the ship’s age and behaviour. I always wanted  more hindrances in High-Space to give a wider variety of individualised ships, and here they are; but my favourite is still Poor Signage, which means it’s hard to find anything you need. Edges are things which would be fittings in most game systems; cryosleep pods, armouries, cargo holds, that kind of thing. Some of them require connections with particular organisations or species to acquire.

The XS+ vehicle rules have been replaced with a more elegant solution: Such vehicles are built like starships, but have the Aero Hindrance, meaning they are atmospheric flyers only, no FTL capability. A definite improvement.

Another change I do approve of is that starships no longer have an FTL die randomising their movement; they all move FTL at the same speed. One change I’m unsure about is that ship attributes and edges are bought and hindrances reduce the ship’s overall cost; in first edition, they worked more like character edges and hindrances (which was more elegant, especially as you could level up your ship as the party advanced), now they work more like gear (you just buy them). I think I prefer the first edition approach for this.

I found the lack of example designs in first edition made it hard to understand the starship construction rules, but now there is one worked example and a number of sample designs.

The Tactical Sphere (17 pages): The thing that stopped me using High-Space first edition was the space combat, with its (admittedly optional) tabletop maps and randomised movement; that’s unfortunate as High-Space is supposed to be all about what it calls “spacefighting”. Second edition ranges are still huge even by SF RPG standards; sensor range is far bigger than a star system, weapons range is about the same size as one, and adjacent is what it says on the tin. FTL movement allows you to change zone, while normal-space movement is for docking. There are still tabletop maps, though they are now abstract and based on zones like the ones in FATE rather than being actual battlemats. Abstract movement is reserved for encounters in deep space, although I couldn’t quite see how that worked. Several things about this chapter jar for me, such as the idea of lasers moving faster than light, fixed sublight speeds for ships, and so on. I see the point of them, in that they allow more tactical complexity by bringing various manoeuvres and ship edges into play. But I’m not going to play this version of space combat either, and since that is one of the key features of the game, this is where I checked out.

Into the Void (11 pages): The deep space between star systems, why you shouldn’t go there (it’s boring), and why you might have to anyway (there might not be a nearby wormgate); notes on astronomical features found in deep space; solar systems and what you can find in them (which seem to refer to a different set of cinematic ranges than the Tactical Sphere, but maybe I missed something); supplies you need; zero-g personal combat.

Keep It Wild (2 pages): A mixture of designers’ notes, adverts for the next release, and further explanation of what PCs do and who hires them. I like the idea NPCs insult the PCs by calling them ‘pandas’.

FORMAT

One book rather than the previous three; still has nice artwork; black text on white, usually two column but sometimes one; unusually, body text is sans serif.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

It would be nice to have the ability to suppress colour page backgrounds. I can’t believe I still have to point that out in 2017.

As a science fiction game, it should either be scientifically plausible or explain why science doesn’t apply in this setting. As things stand, I am jarred out of my willing suspension of disbelief every time a ship moves.

Savage Worlds has perfectly viable dogfighting rules; personally I would have used those and adjusted the shipbuilding rules to suit them.

CONCLUSIONS

Picture the Lantern, the setting for the first edition, as a mining town in Alaska; the second edition takes you to the PanDominion equivalent of L.A. In fact, this is a completely new setting; character creation, starship creation and combat, aliens, background – all different.

This is a more polished product than the first edition in many ways, but it appeals to me less. Oh, and leave any scientific education you have at the door, it will only upset you once you’re inside.

Overall Rating: 3 out of 5. It works, it does what it sets out to do, but what it sets out to do isn’t what I want – not really the game’s fault, I suppose, more a case of I bought the wrong thing.

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