Category Archives: Reviews

Dune – House Harkonnen

A few years ago I read Dune – House Atreides. Now I have read the next one of the prequels. Dune – House Harkonnen.

We get to know more about the Harkonnen family and a few new characters are introduced. Not all are bad.

But the bad and stupid ones do what could be expected of them.

There are also the expected side stories about the Atreides and other important Houses.

A few concepts are introduced a bit too early here. Things that didn’t exist until later in the original series. That is a bit annoying. But other than that, I thought the book was quite good. (But don’t read it until you have read all of the original Dune books first. The originals are a lot better.)

Harkonnen flag – Image from wikimedia – CC-BY-SA-4.0 license

These Stars Are Ours!

“The more deeply we are cast under a story’s spell, the more potent its influence.” Underlying all passionate Traveller fans is a desire to tell and participate in  grand science fiction narratives. We can worry about Canon and setting and what game Traveller is supposed to be. Or we can write sweeping histories such as “These Stars Are Ours!“. Published by Stellagama Publishing, its goal is to provide an immersive Traveller universe that explores a variety of themes and stories, drawing upon well known science fiction tropes. A consequence of separating the “engine” of Traveller from the “setting” is that it liberates writers and publishers to create their own settings for adventures. Echoing the great product the Twilight Sector, “These Stars Are Ours!” is a successful and comprehensive setting that includes new and modified rules relevant to the setting and takes advantage of Stellagama Publishing’s existing work in extending the Cepheus Engine. It entrances the reader immediately and provides a powerful basis for Traveller adventures.

These Stars Are Ours!
Alegis Downport has already written an informative review. The comment thread below the review already contains positive responses from the publisher promising further material for the setting – great news for fans. This review will comment more on the history and nature of setting itself.

The star charts draw upon Stellagama’s earlier work “Near Space“. It makes Earth (“Terra”) the centre of the setting – and so players have an immediate stake in the game, connecting to the future of our own planet. The setting approximately 400 years into the future, not thousands, also making it more immediate to us as readers and players. The period is clearly parallel to Traveller 2300 but this setting has a very different flavour. The Reticulans are the almond-shaped-eyed aliens of Area 51 fame who conquer Terra and rule it with an iron fist until thrown off by the free-spirited, fighting and proud Terrans. Play begins in the aftermath of this revolutionary war.

The history of the war itself is a great read. This reviewer saw clear parallels to the Russian Civil War of the 1920’s and to World War II – there was even a ‘Stalingrad’ moment in this setting’s history. While the ‘fighting Terran’ spirit is reminiscent of fiction such as Starship Troopers, the setting is also clearly influenced by the gritty realism of Firefly and its themes of the real social consequences of war and oppression. This theme carries through in describing the history and culture of the various non-human sophonts of the setting. None are cardboard cut-out “bad guys” and all have redeeming qualities as well as flaws. How these various aliens react to the Reticulan Imperium and the United Terran Republic causes us to reflect upon the reasons for our actions – the best part of role play games (although I also enjoy blowing things up).

Sophonts in TSAO!

The patrons provided are all great hooks firmly grounded in this detailed and nuanced setting.  There are familiar industrial espionage, smuggling and exploration themes, but all layered with the particular history of the setting, including a mysterious race of Precursors who have left artefacts. But on top of this there are very specific adventures interacting with the various alien races in ways other than at the other end of a weapon. The Reticulans are divided into competing feudal houses. The Zhuzzh are untrustworthy and nomadic – but as a wise man once said, you can always trust an untrustworthy man to be untrustworthy. The Cicek are fierce fighters and dashing pirates, but also divided along gender lines Aslan-style. The Ssesslessians are mysterious respecters of ancient traditions. Once more familiar with the setting, all of these species would make interesting player characters.

This setting book also offers careers and advanced career rules including setting-based events that affect characters, drawing players into the history and engaging them with the background. All of the new rules and alternate career paths are clearly based on the story needs of the setting. This is an excellent use of a rules engine: it obeys the story needs, not the other way around.

While the deck plans and starship designs are few, the generic ship designs from the Cepheus Engine will fit this setting well. The publishers have promised further ships for the setting in the future. The ‘flying saucer’ designs were a real treat, and the text justifies ‘mysterious UFOs’ at TL13 by showing how mysterious true gravitics would be to 20th Century earth – but always by example, never by telling the reader. This kind of excellent descriptive writing strengthens the setting and is an excellent example of ‘show don’t tell’ in RPG writing.

Ships from TSAO!

The star maps provided give plenty of contrasting settings for adventure, right on the border of four different political entities. “The Frontier” is always a good source of adventures and conflict. What These Stars Are Ours! shows is that you can pack a lot of adventure and campaign ideas into just two subsectors. This is plenty for a typical Traveller sandbox campaign.

Priced at a very reasonable $20, any Referee can pick this up and plan adventures for hungry players quickly. You will not regret the purchase.

From the Ashes

From The Ashes is a short supplement for the Cepheus Engine (‘CE’) and the Traveller SRD (‘SRD’) published by Stellagama Publishing written by Omer Golan-Joel. It covers five expansions characters united by the theme of character death and recovering from fatal injuries.

From the Ashes

It firstly adjusts the usual meaning of ‘character death’ within normal play.  If all three physical characteristics are reduced to zero, instead of rolling up a new character, From The Ashes provides straightforward rules for rushing a character to trauma surgery and recovering. But the devil is in the detail: there may be some permanent new  injuries. This can add history to characters – the loss of a limb or eye makes them more interesting.

Secondly there is an adjustment to character generation, replacing the standard injury table which draws upon the definitions carefully established in the first expansion. It makes character injury during generation harsher but with more detail.

The supplement then provides for simple optional rules in combat for critical hit bonuses for Effect 6 hits, aligning hits against personnel with hits against vehicles. This does make the game generally more lethal.

Finally, two higher technology solutions to near-death injuries are presented: Cybernetic replacements at TL12, and complete body renewal at TL16. However, both come with possible serious side-effects in the spirit of the trauma rules.

At 15 pages total with 10 pages content, this is a very readable supplement that offers a variety of interesting expansions for characters who suffer from fatal injuries and have one last roll of the dice depending on the TL of their surroundings and the skill of the doctor operating. At the same time, character generation and combat get a bit more fatal. The result can be used by Referees to rescue NPCs from death but now they have one leg, or are blind, bitter and have history with the PCs.

But, of course, the primary aim is for PCs to have options to trade death for the possibility of an interesting set of scars.

Elite: Legacy

Elite: Legacy is the science fiction book that came with the Elite: Dangerous game. It is written by Michael Brookes who is also quite active at the Frontier Developments Forum.

It is a really good story set in a universe that I love. The asteroid mining colony of Freeholm is experiencing some troubles… They hire some protection for their colony and it’s visitors. It gets really interesting and deadly.

elite_legacy

However, this book needs some serious editing. I cannot believe that they released it in this state. There are not only lots of spelling and grammar errors. There are even parts of the book that are contradicting other parts of the book.

Cepheus Engine

The Cepheus Engine. What is it? It is a new set of Traveller rules from Samardan Press that doesn’t say that it is Traveller. (But it is Traveller.)

Traveller

The rules look very much like a cleaned up version of Classic Traveller, book 1-3 plus supplement-4 and selected parts from book 4 (PGMP and FGMP) and 5 (small ships). You can also find some bits of Mongoose Traveller in it. So far there is no setting except that a few aliens are named as an example.

You know what this could be? The perfect proto-Traveller rules.

Since the Cepheus Engine is a refined set of CT rules, you will recognize most of the rules and can quickly start using them.

First, the character generation and skills are similar to what you already know. Then psionics (important to us at the Zhodani Base) is also what you would expect.

Next in the equipment list you find a tech-level overview table, with the same tech-levels as in Traveller. The currency used is Credits. You can find familiar Traveller items like Fast Drug, TDX, and Air/Raft. The first internal book ends with a combat chapter.

Next book is about Starships, Travelling, Trade and Space Combat.

The Final book is the Referee’s book. In this book are the rules for generating worlds. (It is interesting to see that hydrographics is generated as in CT book-6. That is the same as in MongTrav.) There are rules for all sorts of encounters, including the familiar animal encounter tables from CT. There are also some short help about refereeing and adventures.

Cepheus Engine
Cepheus Engine – Used with permission

This is really the new rule-set we didn’t know we needed. This is proto-Traveller Deluxe.

For the so called “Small Press” (that we like here at the base) this is another option for publishing new supplements without loosing half of their income to Mongoose.

Other reviews:

A Call To Arms

Another interesting book with interesting aliens that I have recently read is A Call To Arms by Alan Dean Foster.

Some of us may remember Alan Dean Foster’s terrible Star Wars book The Splinter of the Minds Eye. But it was a long time since I read that book. What I still remember about it was that it didn’t really fit into the Star Wars canon very well. So maybe it was just that problem and it may not have been that poorly written.

Anyway, I decided to give his “The Damned” series a chance. A Call To Arms is the first book. The cover looked cool, but it turned out that the aliens in this book was quite poor warriors. Most aliens was quite poor at most things. They were like 0-points aliens from GURPS Aliens. All aliens had disadvantages. No aliens was good at warfare.

The reason given for the aliens to be bad at warfare was that an advanced race would (normally) have to abandon all sorts of violence to become an advances race. This is something that would normally happen in the race’s prehistory. This is a quite interesting idea.

The problem was that there was a big interstellar war going on… A race called the Amplitur wanted all other galactic races to join what they call the Amplitur Purpose. A number of races think this is a bad idea and has formed what they call the Weave. Neither side has any good soldiers. Then the Weave find the Earth… This is just the start of the book.

A Call To Arms

The book is really good and the different races are well describes. The plot is interesting. I think there are lots of ideas that can be mined for your Traveller setting here. This may even inspire you to come up with a new Traveller setting.

This book is the first one in The Damned Trilogy. I will try to find and read the other two.