Thursday, November 13, 2008

Masakari's Review of StarSIEGE

My friend Masakari has recently picked up the StarSIEGE boxed set, and as a favor to me I asked him if he'd be willing to do a guest posting here and review the game for me. I've been gaming with M for going on 12 years now, and this guy is an Idea Machine. Maybe, just maybe, I can convince him to share some of his other works here if we can get some positive feedback, but for now, here's his review of StarSIEGE...


A bit of background: I've been playing roleplaying games for 24 years now. Systems I've played include D&D (from Mentzer's "red box" Basic Set through 3.5), GURPS, Call of Cthulhu, Rolemaster, Mage: The Ascension, Castles & Crusades, the Basic Fantasy RPG, and a host of homebrew systems.

Most recently, I've picked up Troll Lord Games' StarSIEGE: Event Horizon.

* The Operations Manual: A 44-page GM's guide detailing the basic mechanics of the SIEGE system (movement, combat, skill rolls, etc.). Also covers the details behind science fiction-specific game elements such as mutations, psychic powers, and equipment/alien/world building.

* 4 Field Manuals: A 28-page player's guide, covering character creation. Includes simple equipment and powers lists.

* 4 Broadsheets: A "cheat sheet" for the GM, a character sheet, and construction record sheets for worlds and starships.

* "Victory: 2442": A 24-page sample campaign setting. Leaning towards the harder/grittier end of pulp sci-fi, this sourcebook describes what's left of the Terran Sector following a short, bloody three-way interstellar war.

* 2 d20: the only dice you'll need to play the game.

The physical quality of the material struck me as quite good. The box was sturdy and issue-free, and the manuals in good condition. Including four copies of the player's guide was an interesting touch - between that and the dice, it's a very complete package.

(Idle speculation: I wonder if they couldn't have cut the height of the box in half if they'd skimped on including the dice and extra manuals - maybe used something the size of TSR's old Al-Qadim or Dark Sun sourceboxes? While this might have compromised the "completeness" of the package, I wonder how much it might have saved in production costs.)

While Troll Lord Games has a reputation for shoddy editing, I've discovered very few editing glitches so far, mostly odd spacings of statblocks in the text and a missing subtitle on the spaceship creation broadsheet.

The artwork is black and white, but varied and well done. I found it fresh, but still very evocative of 80's-era sci-fi gaming products.

I've found the placement of various rules to be somewhat haphazard; the lack of an index or table of contents doesn't help, either. That said, the booklets are small enough that hunting for answers hasn't eaten much of my time.

The name and function of the basic character attributes are different from the usual D&D/C&C counterparts, but make sense in context. (For example, that old standby "Charisma" has been replaced with "Confidence", an attribute covering a character's social influence, ego, willpower, and resistance to psychic stress). Instead of using a 3-18 score, attributes are defined solely by their modifiers, which range from -4 to +4 (0 being average). Attribute values can be generated using a d20 (the default) or 3d6.

If you're familiar with the SIEGE engine introduced in Castles & Crusades, you won't have much of a learning curve here. One thing that HAS changed, however, is the use of "skill bundles" to determine a character's primes, rather than their basic attributes. Characters have a relatively short list of skill bundles to choose from (such as "Combat", "Mechanics", "Environmental", "Awareness", etc.); GMs are encouraged to tailor this list to taste.

In addition to skill bundles, StarSIEGE introduces "specialties" - essentially a grainier skill system. Characters can use XP to buy up bonuses in specific tasks. For example, a character could beef up their melee or unarmed combat bonuses over shooting, or specialize in particular scientific or engineering disciplines.

StarSIEGE introduces a number of character scores and rules for handling cybernetics, psychic powers, custom-built alien races, mutations, and tech levels. Depending on how much the GM wants to allow, supernatural power levels may range from low/rare/dangerous (e.g. "mutations" = cancer, and "cybernetics" = a wheelchair or a hook for a hand) all the way up to four-color comic-book superhero levels a la X-Men.

Interestingly enough, StarSIEGE allows GMs to build planets in much the same way characters are built. Planets have attributes, a collection of descriptive scores (such as population, tech, and wealth levels), and a collection of "facilities" that grant bonuses to interplanetary interactions. This opens up interesting possibilities for subgames involving interplanetary war, trade, and diplomacy. ("Birthright in Space", anyone?)

The existing equipment and psi-power lists are sparse, but cover a good baseline variety of basic sci-fi gear and abilities. This sparseness is largely due to the part of the StarSIEGE mechanics that has gripped me most to date: the Trappings system. This is an extremely flexible point-based toolkit for designing gadgets (anything from a knife to a starship), special powers, and racial abilities.

As a fan of GURPS and D20 Modern, I really like the look of this game. Many elements (such as specialties, credit ratings, and the trappings system) strike me as very reminiscent of elements in GURPS and D20 Modern/Future, but far, far simpler in execution.

Organizational issues aside, I find StarSIEGE's rules extremely straightforward and easy to understand. I haven't yet had a single "What does this mean?!" moment regarding any rules questions - at least, not one lasting more than 30 seconds before finding the appropriate ruling in the books.

While the core system is simple, there are TONS of optional rules scattered throughout the booklets to keep things interesting (or, in some cases, make things more familiar). Want to know how many hit points your character has? Here's how to replace the core wound track system with hit dice. Like the feel of money in your pocket? Here's how to convert credit ratings into dollar values. Using specialties is too complicated? Here's how to dump them without needing to rebalance the entire game. Want to play a grizzled veteran who fights with a pair of pistols? Here's how....

Given the kinds of powers and tech one can model, it also strikes me that StarSIEGE would be an excellent system for running a variety of quick and dirty games outside of the sci-fi genre - for example, a low-to-no-magic modern-day or historical game. (Maybe territory close to that covered by the likes of Call of Cthulhu?) The toolkit nature of the system makes it extremely easy (if admittedly time consuming) to roll your own setting, and I can think of bunches of off-kilter character concepts that could work under StarSIEGE's framework.

StarSIEGE is a simple yet extremely flexible rules system, easily capable of modeling a huge variety of gaming genres (sci-fi and otherwise). Given what you can do with the materials provided and a little imagination, it's a steal at $30.


Thanks again Masakari for a very detailed review. Questions, comments anybody?


Will Douglas said...

I gotta agree with this post in its entirety.

One omission I noted in the player's book is the list of the sample character's starting equipment. But I asked the designer on the Troll Lord Games forums and he filled me in, so if you want that info, it's out there.

Masakari said...

A few extra thoughts, as author of the review:

1) I've discovered a couple of other minor editing glitches in the week and a half I've had the box, so poo on TLG.

2) I realize I mentioned nothing about how combat and damage is handled, which is interesting enough that it's probably worth a mini-analysis in itself.

3) Even where the StarSIEGE rules are vague or nonexistent, I've had good experiences (so far) making stuff up on the fly, which is a plus. (For example, thinking up house rules covering the use of binoculars.)

4) A few weeks ago, T&B had a post about building a simple low-tech weapons list from scratch. Here are some possible extensions to that topic: what would a simple sci-fi weapons list look like? A modern-day one? What about a generic "gear" package for different eras? Thinking along these lines would be especially relevant for a system like StarSIEGE, which provides the means to build entire tech systems from scratch.