In a Nutshell: Space opera RPG by James Maliszewski, using the 12 Degrees rule system. 277 page PDF (in my case) published by Grognardia Games, $30.
1: Primer (8 pages). This explains what you’re going to get. The game is intended to evoke the feeling of classic science fiction literature from the 1950s to the 1970s. The core mechanic is to add together a characteristic and a skill level, and roll that or less on 2d12 to succeed.
2: Character Generation (18 pages). This is a straightforward point-buy system; divide 30 points between 5 characteristics, select a species, a homeworld package and three career packages, create five hooks for the character, acquire and spend benefit points. Vitality (hit points) and Initiative Rank are calculated from the five characteristics. Hooks are things about the character that can generate plots or complications, and are somewhat like Fate aspects or Savage Worlds edges and hindrances. Each package gives you a selection of skills and skill levels, and has several hooks suggested for it. Benefit points are derived from career packages. Action points allow you to improve your chances of success or re-roll skill checks; they work better if used in conjunction with a hook.
3: Species (18 pages). Six species are presented, including Terrans (that’s you, that is), two human clades (the obligatory genetically-engineered super-soldiers and geniuses), the Czanik (walking trees and Terra’s best allies), the Hen Jaa (the default bad guys – chlorine-breathing squids), and the Kriilkna (trilaterally symmetrical shrimp-people). A PC’s species affects his characteristics, skills, and so forth, and at least one of his hooks must be related to his species. It’s clearly stated that there are many more species in the game universe.
4: Career Packages (18 pages). There are 27 careers, each with three levels: Novice, Experienced and Veteran. PCs each have three packages to allocate, so they may choose to be a Veteran of a single career, Experienced in one and Novice in a second, or Novice in three different ones. Being a Veteran gets you the best benefits, which are things like a robot servant, membership in an interstellar organisation, part-ownership of a starship and so on.
5: Skills and Hooks (14 pages). There are 40 skills, typically with half a dozen potential specialisations; hooks can be pretty much whatever you want, so there is no definitive list. The core mechanic was explained earlier, and is expanded on here with modifiers, critical successes and failures, and whatnot; how much you succeed by, or fail by, is important, although the main mechanical effect is in combat.
6: Action (20 pages). Combat is straightforward and simple. In order of initiative, move and act or attack. To attack, roll 2d12; if the result is less than or equal to the sum of the relevant characteristic and skill plus modifiers, you’ve hit, and inflict damage equal to your degree of success multiplied by the weapon’s base damage on the target’s Vitality. There is hit location, but only if you use a called shot.
7: Psi (18 pages). The 20 or so psionic powers in the game are bought like skills, although you need to take at least one level in a psi career to gain access to them. Something to watch out for: Use of powers inflicts damage – you essentially power your abilities with your hit points. Using powers on things that are heavier, further away etc. requires more degrees of success and hurts you more. Powers tend to focus on telepathy, telekinesis and buffing the psi’s abilities – what a Star Wars fan would know as the Force.
8: Technology and Equipment (22 pages). My eyes glaze over as usual at the gear chapter, but it includes armour, personal energy shields, blasters both normal and sonic, lasers, tanglers, slug throwers, monoblades, vibroblades, computers, neural jacks, drugs and medical gear, sensors, survival equipment, cybernetic implants, a few types of robots – you get the idea.
9: Starships and Vehicles (26 pages). There are no shipbuilding rules (those are in the supplement Thousand Suns: Starships), just 18 example ships. The stand-out development here is an attempt at simple three-dimensional space combat. Ships in a dogfight move on the table, but their altitude above or below it is shown by d12s. I’m not sure how well this would work as I haven’t tried it, but kudos for having a go at it. Apart from this, in general terms ship combat works similarly to personal combat. This chapter also includes 14 example vehicles and rules for chases and vehicle combat, which is even more like personal combat.
10: Game Mastering (12 pages). This opens with fairly basic, generic stuff; the GM should be fair, the players should always have a chance of success, it’s supposed to be fun, change anything you don’t like in the game. Then we move on into how to create an Imperial SF adventure; draw on events in the 19th and early 20th centuries, be realistic yet optimistic, power should corrupt but not absolutely, great civilisations should rise and fall (sometimes predictably), make travel slow and authority distant, make technology cool but remember it is a prop, not the focus of the story. That segues into a random adventure generator which is followed by notes on awarding experience points and what players can do with them.
11: Worlds and Trade (20 pages). Here are the sector and world generation sequences, and the trading rules. Sectors consist of several dozen worlds, each with 0-3 jump routes connecting it to other worlds 1d12 weeks away. Each world is characterised by its general type, diameter, atmosphere, climate, hydrography, population, government, law and tech levels, and hooks. Speculative trade relies on random die rolls for what is available, and skill checks to haggle for purchase and sale prices.
12: Alien Life (16 pages). Alien animal and species design sequence; basic form, characteristics, size, movement, and traits such as Brittle Bones, Curious and Acidic Spittle. Traits are point-buy, the rest of the sequence is based on die rolls.
13: Allies and Antagonists (8 pages). Get yer NPCs here. Statblocks, gear, descriptions; a dozen generic ones, half a dozen fleshed out in some detail and suitable for use as allies or enemies.
14: Meta-Setting (20 pages). This is my favourite part; although the author intends the book as a toolkit for building your own Imperial SF setting, he understands that not everyone has the time or inclination to do so. The meta-setting is a broad outline of the history and geography of one such setting, which is deliberately kept vague and flexible enough that the individual GM can drop anything into it and be confident it will fit. (This is a current trend in SF RPGs, see for example The Last Parsec or Ashen Stars.) It follows the traditional consensus of the literature; World War III wipes the slate clean and explains discrepancies between today and the setting’s future history, interplanetary then interstellar exploration, alien contact, the first empire (in this case the Terran Federation), assorted wars, an interregnum, and the present day. What is clever about it is the way that the author has removed from play various currently-fashionable technologies which were not present in the literature, notably Artificial Intelligence and genetic engineering. I also like the way that the GM is provided with options for the current Terran State’s structure and its key personalities. We also learn about interstellar organisations, the Terran State’s rival powers, and the long-vanished aliens known as Travelers, blamed for anything weird and the source of the original starmap found by humans on Mars.
15: Limzano Sector (9 pages). In this last full chapter, we see an example sector of about 60 worlds, with four rival powers striving to assimilate them, a number of non-governmental organisations and corporations, thumbnail sketches (statblock and a paragraph or two of notes) of 10 of the worlds, and a lesser intelligent race native to the area.
We finish with an appendix on Lingua Terra (basic phrases, personal and ship names), a bibliography (the fiction the game emulates), the open game licence, and the obligatory character sheet. A nice touch is that Lingua Terra, the language of rule of the old Federation, is represented in-game by the real-world artificial language Esperanto.
Colour cover (by which I mean, it is green) surrounding single-column black text on white. Black and white illustrations every few pages, liberally spattered with quotes from the literature it emulates. Easy to read, easy on the home printer.
SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT
None. This is solid work, and will be comfortingly familiar for the Traveller grognard despite using very different rules.
Like Classic Traveller, Thousand Suns strives to emulate “Imperial science fiction”, the space opera genre of 1950s-1970s literature; it is therefore inevitable that to some extent they appear similar. You could use these rules for a Travelleresque campaign, and it would work very well. They’re very fast and easy to pick up, well laid out, and a good representation of their target genre. Had I but world enough, and time, and players, this would go into the queue for use. But I don’t, so I shall limit myself to pillaging it for ideas.
Overall Rating: 4 out of 5.