Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Eldritch Mousetrap - Death in Space

Hey! Welcome. This is my first review on Bones. I’m calling them my eldritch mousetraps, since my online moniker in all the places you can find me is @eldritchmouse. Thanks to Anne for the great name suggestion!

I’ll be reviewing Death in Space, so strap in, suit up, and get ready to blast off.

A photo of the cover art. A stylized background presents a void like hole in one part of the graphic, with lines leading towards it. A person in a space suit falls from above, tethered to something unseen. The title is "Death In Space. A science fiction roleplaying game."
The cover rules. Sink down into the void, my friend.

Introduction

Death in Space is a science-fiction RPG with old-school sensibilities. It was created by Christian Plogfors and Carl Niblaeus and published by Free League Publishing.

I haven’t had the chance to actually run the game: this review is based on the PDF copy I received for backing the Kickstarter.

The real question here is simple—does it hold up to Mothership, the current big dog in the sci-fi RPG atmosphere?

The Review

We start off strong, with reference tables. The beginning of the book starts with equipment lists on the inside cover. I’ve always considered equipment lists to be neat little wishlists that the players love to look at and use to solve problems. Putting it in an easy to find place means there’s no digging through the book for it later. How does the equipment in DIS hold up? Well, you’ve got the good stuff like a fake grenade, pheromone spray, an animal replica with a simple AI, and magnetic boots.

You’ve also got a table of foodstuffs that is filled with things like “almost bread,” “toothpaste-type tubes with pureed food ready-to-eat,” and “vacuu-ice, cold flavored ice in plastic bags.” The fresh fruit and vegetables are the most expensive things on the list, apart from a box of spices. They’ve made a deliberate choice here, to use half a page just for food items, and I think it pays off—the choices presented imply a strong setting. You’re out in space, and every gram of weight is worth something. There’s no fancy luxuries.

We dive into the world of the game with eleven paragraphs of history, laying out the lore we’ll leverage in our campaigns. Tropes can be helpful in RPGs—a nice anchor to understand the world that is easy to grasp. DIS employs the standard tropes liberally. There’s a void out there in deep space, and it uses radio static to call out to you. After an all-out-war, resources have dried up, so there’s no new spaceships being built. The central powers are destroyed, leaving behind scattered warlords and their domains.

Players are hard-working laborers who take whatever jobs they can get—salvagers, escorts, prospectors, and everything that slots in between that space.

Even if we don’t leave the RPG medium, we’re seeing these tropes being used in other places already: in Traveller, in Coriolis, and in Starforged. The world is gritty, it’s falling apart, and you’re just in it to survive, job to job. It’s a good and usable setup for a game, but it’s definitely familiar.

The Iron Ring provides a sort of “starting village” mixed with a megadungeon to get your campaign rolling. It’s a bunch of old ships and stations stitched together in a ring around a moon. This is a very cool concept, as long as you don’t think too hard about just how many kilometers of derelicts you’d need to ring a moon.

Character Creation

Four characters in black and white stand ready to fight. On the left, a friendly looking bald man in a heavy suit. Next to him, a woman with a glowing eye holding a sword. Beside her, someone jacked into a headset they're wearing, with a drone hovering next to them. Lastly, a figure in a futuristic suit that hides who they are, holding a powerful rifle.
The art in the book is wonderful. Evocative, gritty, and full of flavor.

The system itself for play is pretty bare-bones. We’ve got 4 abilities, and they’re generated using 1d4-1d4, which means that you’re most likely to have a 0 for a starting attribute, and a ~6% chance of having either -3 or 3.

Picking an origin is next: they’re interesting choices without being too far fetched for our grounded, sci-fi world. The closest thing to a “baseline” human is a punk, while you’ve got other things like void shamans, cyborgs, and space vampires (sorta, they have a pod that regenerates limbs and stops them from ageing.)

The rest of your character is background, trait, drive, looks, and past allegiance. There’s no mechanical weight to any of these things, they’re all flavor. Each one has 20 options to roll or choose from, except allegiance, which narrows down to just 6.

The most flavor is nested in the background table: the technomant, event horizon diver, static noise translator, and gravity swindler. These are some neat combinations that gets my brain firing.

Unfortunately, apart from the background table, the rest of the tables lack flavor. Traits are things I’d expect (proud, lazy, creepy) and drive is almost completely setting neutral. Past allegiance is particularly disappointing to me, since it’s mostly things like “family” (space Dom Toretto), the “winning/losing side”, and “an idea.” We’ve been presented with a setting full of failed megacorps, space warlords, scavengers, void callers, and the entirety of the Iron Ring. I think the past allegiances table could have been jam-packed with setting specific entries that help players ground themselves and tuck into the world. The options presented are serviceable, I just wish they had taken it one more step: have the 6 general choices, with 6 specific ones nested underneath. That way, if the player somehow rolls the same as the person beside them, they’ve immediately gained a fun connection.

Last step: starting kit, a starting bonus, and a personal trinket. The bonus is neat, with things like an AI guard animal, another person who just likes to hang out with you, +3 hp, or even a cosmic mutation. The personal trinket table is filled with flavor. “Cartridge with AI from a dead pet” hits hard. “Notebook with names of people that have treated you badly” doesn’t really help the setting, but it’s neat to base a character off of that. “Belt buckle with hidden star compass” is just neat.

Hub Creation

“The hub is your home, your sanctuary in a tough universe. The crew starts with a station or a spacecraft.”

A wireframe rendering of a space station. Various red indicator lines show that parts of the station are broken, and others are operational. There is a hydroponic farm, medical bay, solar panels, high-gain antenna, and escape pods marked out.
Wireframe schematics and clean lines? Yes please.

The nature of RPGs set in space means that you’re usually flying around in some kind of vessel. In DIS they’re letting you make that choice right off the bat: do you want a ship or a station? Are you going to travel or try out a more stationary campaign?

The hub rules are simple, but they’re not the same as characters. You’ve got a power source and modules, and you need to feed it fuel to power it. It takes 1 fuel per session. This is a bit of a strange choice with the nebulous amount of in-world time a session can encompass, but for simplicity’s sake you can’t beat a non-diegetic requirement. Getting more modules requires adventuring, along with upgrading your power source to power them. You start with no modules.

There’s two 20 entry tables for hub backgrounds. The backgrounds are dang good: “Was part of the renowned Eyemaster squadron of the Union Alliance fleet” and “Used to be a well-known memory brothel, where one used chromes to share memories and indulge in pleasure hacking.” The station backgrounds also hit: “Used as an illegal designer drug lab. Drugs were made from strange fruits harvested close by.” and “Some parts of the hub have turned into organic material after a mold infestation.”

Each hub gets a quirk too. These aren’t setting specific, but that’s okay: they’re loaded with flavor and things that your PCs will (love to) hate.

Playing the Game

The four abilities are Body, Dexterity, Savvy, and Tech. Interestingly, Tech governs ranged attacks, not dexterity. Checks are made with 1d20 + Stat (somewhere between -3 and 3, remember) against a static DC of 12. A failure is serious: you suffer a complication or setback and also gain one void point.

Inventory is slot based, and there’s included reaction roll tables.

You can have up to 4 void points at once. You can spend them to gain advantage on a check or activate cosmic mutations. If you use a void point for advantage, and also fail, you’re now rolling to check against void corruption. This is another 1d6 roll, and if you roll below or equal to your current void points, you suffer corruption.

Honestly, that’s a lot there for a single roll. Let’s think about it in an example. I have 4 void points (max), and the GM calls for a roll. I spend 1 void point to get advantage but fail the check. Now I roll against cosmic mutation, rolling a 1d6 and trying to beat a 3. If I fail that, I’m rolling a 1d20 on the void corruptions table.

Void corruption is interesting design. If you’re scared of corruption, you want to burn your void points right when you get them: if you only have 1, you can’t get corruption when you spend it. If you’re maxed out, there’s a 50% chance you’re getting corruption. The corruptions themselves are a big mixture of things, including body mutation, mechanical stuff, and a few ambiguous things left to the referee.

The cosmic mutations are very magic-feely. There are things here like mutations that let you eat anything and heal from it, things that let you teleport to places you’ve seen in the past, ways to warg into smaller creatures, and the ability to control tech. Since void points power these, you’re only using them when you’ve failed previous rolls. Using a mutation doesn’t trigger a corruption roll though, so it’s another safe way to burn through points.

I don’t like when games gate things the players want behind failed rolls. Another example could be some PBtA games, where you mark XP for failing a roll, or get XP just for rolling your highlighted stats. Once you figure that out as a player, you can begin gaming the system. In DIS, you’re using void points for your powers, so you’ll need to fail rolls to activate them. Which means that it’s likely you’re going to push for more rolls—especially things you might fail in—to accumulate points. Now this puts the referee in a difficult position, because having characters roll for everything doesn’t make sense, so you have to decide… well, what makes something worth a roll?

This is a strong design issue that irks me. When every single roll has the potential to be generating something, you’re now dealing with the ambiguity of how often and when you should roll. In the perfect vacuum of game design, the answer is easy: Only roll when the stakes are high! Only roll when failure is interesting! Only roll if the characters have a chance at success! To some degree, whether it’s story games or OSR, there’s talk about “when to roll.” And therein lies the problem.

In the real world, when I’m hanging out with my friends, it’s fun to just roll the dice sometimes.

I love a good moment at the table when everyone is laughing and having fun, and someone proposes a situation that’s ridiculous. “Oh, you want to try and impress this spacer by doing a standing backflip in full gravity? Okay… well, that’s not going to be easy. Roll Dexterity. If you get a 20, we’ll say it happens.” Everyone laughs, the dice hit the table, and no matter the result, we’re having fun. In design like this, you either don’t worry about that too much (oops you failed your backflip but got a void point) or you say “nope, you don’t know how to backflip, it doesn’t work.”

This is why I find the “every roll creates something” design to be such touch and go. I don’t think that this ruins the system at all, and for most tables out there, I wonder if this even comes up? All I can speak for is my own experience, though. There're certainly other ways you could use to generate void points that doesn’t put such an onus on the referee and calling for rolls. The easiest one that pops to mind is that you generate a void point when you take damage. Using them follows the same rules.

A plain, synthetic looking figure, kneeling on the ground. They have one hand raised in the air, palm open facing forward. A star map hovers in front of the palm. Three stylized "plus signs" in red hover before the figure.
This person definitely says "hello" to the void as often as possible.

Moving on! All gear in the game has Condition. This hammers home that duct tape and superglue are holding the world together. Everything kinda sucks, and it’s always needing repairs. Each time you use the gear in a stressful situation, check against condition. Very simple and easy.

Repairing stuff happens with spare parts; recover them by dismantling anything you can get your hands on: electronics, equipment, vehicles. It all boils down to spare parts. For smaller stuff, it’s 1d6 hours. For bigger stuff, it’s 1d20 hours.

EVA suits for difficult environments are detailed, and the important thing about them seems to be their oxygen capability. The character sheet even has an oxygen meter, and all suits have enough O2 for 7 hours.

Time, however, is very loosely defined in the book. Apart from the aforementioned repairs, oxygen, and some upcoming travel times, it’s not a big deal, mechanically. As mentioned earlier, power cells deplete once per game session, instead of any sort of game clock. If repairing stuff takes 1d6 hours, what does it matter if it’s 1 hour or 4 hours? If you’re in a crunch, sure, but when you are in a crunch, there’s no time-keeping rules for what you can do during that crunch. Suits have 7 hours of oxygen, but that’s only coming into play when the referee says, “okay, it’s been another hour. Lose O2.” There’s no other details about what you can get done in an hour.

In these newer OSR games, time is often omitted, apart from strange artifacts left in the usual places. I wish the game had a more stricter or defined “turn system” regarding time-keeping.

Space Travel

There’s not much here, mostly just dealing with fuel usage and encounter tables. There’s no determined travel times, just a graph based on your speed. There’s non-cryo sleep travel, cryo-sleep travel, and “bridging” travel, which is near-instantaneous but very expensive.

Anything that isn’t within system is going to take a long time unless you bridge. I’m talking years and decades. In this game, you’re either staying in the same system or using the bridges to get across: otherwise, the referee is dealing with huge gaps of time to fill in between travel. Those situations can be a lot of fun at the table, and I would have loved a “here’s what’s changed” random table to help grease those wheels.

Combat

Initiative is elective action order: you choose who goes next, until everyone’s gone, and then it’s a new round. Otherwise, it’s the pretty standard OSR combat you’re expecting.

Space Combat

There’s a broad list of actions and a narrower list of module-specific actions, but there’s no actual rules for what the actions do—it’s up to the referee to figure that out.

Spacecraft have “frame damage” which functions as HP. It’s from 1-100, as a percentage, but only uses 10% increments. So it could have been from 0-10 without any changes. It feels like they’re trying to emulate that “hull damage at 30%!” stuff, but I’m not sure I see the point.

After the fight, fixing superficial frame damage is quick and easy. At 50% frame damage, you suffer a disaster, and these are pretty devastating. As such, space fights are not encouraged: board instead of bomb.

A graphic to help with space combat. Starting at the bottom, with the text "Player Spacecraft." A radar like pulse extends, showing off different zones. Included are boarding, firing, identification, and detection ranges.
The space combat uses range bands and abstract positioning.

Advancement

There’s no traditional levels or classes. Instead, you gain XP by answering questions at the end of the session, such as: did you deliver on a dangerous contract? Did you use at least 1 void point? Did you gain a new enemy?

When you’ve got enough XP you can spend it on individual increases to various things.

Extras

Random tables, setting info, and extra bits fill out the back half of the book.

Locations

Since this system makes it costly in resources and time to travel to different systems, there’s a hefty chunk of the book spent on the Tenebris system. You could set an entire campaign here, and I think that’s the default assumption. With sci-fi games like this, I think there’s a tendency to spread lore wide rather than deep, so focusing on Tenebris is a good decision. I’m positive that there will be more books with different systems down the road, depending on the game’s success.

Tenebris itself has 14 locations detailed out, getting somewhere between ~30 to ~140 words. It’s not much in terms of size, but the locations are primed for adventure. This isn’t a lore-heavy gazette of places in space.

For a few examples:

There’s Amissa, which has The Block. It’s a maze like city of poverty and power, and you could set standard cyberpunkish adventures here, right out of the box.

There’s Lepidoptera, a planet covered in jungles and old ruins. It’s under barrage by solar storms too, which mess up your electronics—the perfect place to set some more standard style dungeon crawls.

Ogre houses The Abyss, an active research station delving into the secrets of the universe. It works well as a “mission-giver” or a place of interest, especially after something goes horribly wrong with the research base…

I’m confident that all 14 locations have, at the very least, the seed of adventure in them. While they might not have outright hooks listed, it’s not a tough stretch of creative muscles to create something interesting.

Cults

Next up: four cults, one column for each spread across two pages. These are self-contained factions, and there’s lots of detail contained in the condensed space. Each has a nice writeup, and then they’re populated with keywords for: Looks, Belief, Goals, Leader, Scarcities, Abundancies, and Theme. The cults themselves are made up of isolated psions, con artists, void chasers, and monstrous mutations.

One thing that’s a bit weak in this area is the connections between each cult. They do cross a bit between scarcities and abundances, but none of them are in direct conflict with any of the others. With only four factions, pushing them into immediate conflict with each other would have upped the potential energy of these factions.

When it comes to factions in a game, every action taken by one group should upset another. Since these cults are the “big four” in the setting, they should be rubbing against each other for space to maneuver. Another option (albeit weaker) would be to add another keyword to the write-ups: Known Enemies. Even if we’re only getting the name of an undetailed faction, that’s still enough to springboard.

The keywords are a great way to build out factions, so I would have enjoyed it if they had included random tables to generate more factions.

Tables and Tools

After the adventure included in the book (discussed after this section) we get to the last part of the book. We start off with a table of monsters, 8 in all.

Unfortunately, a few of the included monsters are a bit bland—the apsis ape is just an ape and the hairpin pig-folk get 2 lines of text and nothing makes them stand out (apart from the name, of course).

There are some fascinating ones though: the Aurora Massworm can atomize organic matter, which is a fun and deadly thing to even think about, let alone encounter. There’s even a little adventure hook at the end of the entry: “With the right tools, the particles can be collected and reassembled.”

The Antfolk bite people and turn the afflicted body part into nutritious liquid. Yum.

The Neon Harpy rips out memories and turns them into holographic projections. That’s well primed for an adventure for the PCs.

If you’re condensing your monster entries to such a small number, you absolutely need homeruns. I wanted to see more of a lean towards how these monsters might spur adventures on their own. There’s some that are easy to use, like the Massworm, but then there’s also others that are just a deadly swarm of flies that can only take damage from fire. I don’t think it’s reasonable to ask for an entire monster manual in the book, especially when there’s so many books you can draw inspiration from. What I’m looking for here are things that are creative, original, and exciting. Things that I couldn’t come up with on the fly during a game, and things that get me thinking about the game during the off-hours. Use monsters to spark my brain, not to hand me off some stats.

Along with the monsters, there’s also 6 “corruptions of the void” which are more stat blocks. Some of these are space-zombies with a little twist, but you’ve also got some gross insect-like things. Not that memorable, unfortunately.

We also get three “beings” connected to the void. These could be cults, deities, or something more—there’s not much written on them, just a sentence each.

There’s a neat trap generator, where you roll a trigger and an obstacle. You’ve got some standard triggers like pressure plates, but also fun stuff like magnetic detectors and lasers. Obstacles also have a nice range, like a pipe bomb all the way to a matter-converter where you could end up with an arm made from bendable glass.

The next tables are random space encounters, iron ring locations, addictive substances, more equipment, and contractor (hirelings) stats and rules.

A random contract generator helps you create random adventures. I generated a few options and got some good ones

       Scavenge a weapon from a cult at a forgotten mining station. You’ll get paid in new gear.

       Tow a creature from a planet ruin to a rebuilt satellite for a union worker.

There’s also an NPC generator that cooks up some neat people:

       Fushigi Guide: a drone friller. Old-fashioned. Never smiles. Likes things simple. Untied big boots, patched broken nose.

       Nauka Atticus: a data-pusher. Speaks with a unique accent. Disarming gaze. No shoes, tight t-shirt, black pants.

The vibe of the NPCs is good and evocative, but I would have enjoyed some setting specific tables that hones in on the needs, wants, and motives of the people here. That would add another vector to generate adventures, tied into an NPC.

The Adventure: Welcome to the Ring

Two faction symbols in neon green. The Passel is represented by an angry looking boar head. The Parliament is a Penrose triangle, spray painted over.
The two factions. Everyone knows that boars and Penrose triangles simply cannot get along.

One thing I’ve noticed with the product lines that Free League publishes is a dedication to “adventure landscapes” instead of more traditional linear storylines. In things like Symbaroum, Mutant, and Forbidden Lands you’re given a sandbox of toys and are encouraged to let your players run wild. While Death in Space wasn’t written by Free League, it is published by them, so I’m hoping that it follows the same line of thinking for adventure writing.

The adventure in the book is a fresh start to the game—the players start with a broken hub that needs fixing and hit with a docking fee that they need to pay off to leave. At the same time two gangs are about to erupt in an all out war in this part of the Ring. One gang controls the power, one gang controls the computers. They both need each other, and they both want to oust the other.

There’s also an immediate timer built in: the higher ups who control this part of the ring are on the way, and when they show up in four hours, it’s shooting first and questions never. Players need repairs, fuel, and to pay the docking fee before that happens.

The adventure is split into four and a half zones, with each one detailed out across two pages. The zones contain locations, events, people, and factions. Two area maps flesh out the main gang hideouts.

A black and neon green top-down map of the Passel area. There's plenty of plants, ways in, and hallways to block line of sight.
One of the area maps. I love the single color simplicity.

This is an adventure without a bad guy. Both gangs are neither good nor right, they’re just people. The setting is bleeding through pretty hard here—this is a run down place, patched together and holding on. Virtual reality drugs are rampant and a growing problem, and water is in short supply to grow the food.

There’s no easy solution. At best, it provides some “if the players do this…” sections. These two things together are a useful and desirable way to present the adventure.

The four hour time limit is interesting, but there’s no procedural way to decide what you can accomplish in four hours of time. It does imbue a sense of urgency, and the players might split up—in my mind, the best case scenario would be the crew splitting up and siding with both gangs, discovering that there’s no clear winner or bad guy. But the urgency is coming from the narrative, not from an actual mechanic.

The real problem here is that time passing comes down to referee fiat. You’re likely to encounter a “just in time” cinematic solution, which might be fine and desired for your group. But since this is a rules-light OSR-ish system, I was expecting a firmer grasp on how time passes. There are no “turns” that advance time, nor does it say how long it even takes to move between each node.

Stricter turns could be employed—it takes x minutes to move between the zones, and you can do one significant action in each node that takes x minutes. However, I don’t think that’s the only option if you’re writing an adventure of this style. I also think a countdown clock could suffice, where instead of just saying “2 hours have passed, what now?” the referee has a timeline of events that will occur, increasing the chaos of the Ring with specific events. Each major action advances the clock, which the players can always see.  You could improv all this with the information in the adventure, but for me a published adventure should be providing me with things I can’t think up at the table on the fly.

When you put an adventure into a rulebook, it sets the tone, pace, and standards for further adventures. In that way, I’m a bit surprised this isn’t a space dungeon crawl, but rather a social heavy adventure with lots of factions and opportunities for roleplay. I think you get a lot out of 14 pages, including some interesting hooks for further play. This is an adventure my group would absolutely love.

Conclusion

There was a lot of talk about Death in Space being very similar in tone and theme to Mothership when the Kickstarter launched. They occupy similar spaces (hah), but with pretty different rulesets and design ethos.

There’s no stress mechanics in Death in Space, but combat is a lot simpler and quicker to run. Death in Space feels much less like a horror anchored game, and much more in the vein of “hard-working space truckers.”

Taking the myriad of excellent Mothership modules and using Death in Space to run them is still very possible, and conversion would be a snap.

I would have liked more rules, especially ones related to time, in the book. There’s a lot of rules-light OSR-ish games out there, and there’s only going to be more. This takes us to the stars, in a grungy falling-apart future, but is that enough to be novel?

I’m interested to see what kind of support the game receives after release. The longevity and success is going to depend on the release of new adventures, and not just standard, predictable ones. The Mothership community is pumping out some of the most creative modules out there, and the support they receive from TKG really shows. Death in Space needs to foster that same support and community.

If you’re looking for rules-light in the stars, Death in Space is a solid foundation for such a game. I’m hoping we see some neat and evocative adventure landscapes down the line. On the website, they’ve just released a third-party license, so I'm wondering what we'll see from that. If you backed the Kickstarter, there’s also two pamphlet adventures waiting for you. I haven’t read them, but I’d be eager to see the direction they go in.

I had thought that when I finished writing this, Death in Space would be fully available to the public, or at least a PDF copy of it would be for sale. But it seems to be not the case, so instead of a review, this is a hands-on preview. When it is available, I expect you’ll be able to get it from https://deathinspace.com/ or directly from Free League Publishing.

4 comments:

  1. I feel like Death in Space is entering an already-crowded conceptual region - not just with Mothership and the Alien RPG, but Eclipse Phase and Shadows over Sol and assorted other games. And to stick out from the crowd you either need a whole lot of flavor and some noteworthy Big Ideas, or really stand-out adventures.

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    1. Yup! Not to mention Coriolis, Starforged, new Traveller, Vast Grimm, Through the Void, and many others. I think Death in Space has some bits of good flavor, and now needs the support of a few outstanding adventures that leverage it.

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  2. This sounds really interesting. I can understand your concern about the void points and the nature of rolls, but if I'm understanding correctly, I like the way it encourages players to be constantly using them rather than hoarding them, and it also feels thematically resonant in addition to being a way to get players to use their resources.

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    Replies
    1. I do really like that it encourages *using* void points in a few different ways (including granting XP at the end of the session.) It's also good design that you essentially have the choice of either using them right away or hoarding them, based on if you want your character to get a cosmic mutation. (Use them right when you get them: no chance of mutations. Hoard them and it can bump up to a 50% chance.)

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