jueves, 11 de julio de 2019

Review of Elevation: first contact, a sci-fi campaign for M-Space

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Elevation: first contact is a setting book with scenarios for the sci-fi roleplaying game M-Space, published by Frostbyte Books. M-Space, as well as its special brother Odd Soot, are two stand-alone games based on the rules of the Mythras RPG. Both books, together with the scenario Reflux, were written by Clarence Redd, the one-man-orchestra behind Frostbyte Books. Elevation, however, has been penned by Michael Larrimore, who so far has also written a superhero scenario for Mythras titled Agony & Ecstasy.

Note: Clarence Redd was kind enough to provide me with a copy of the book so I could write this review. Even so, you can trust in my impartiality, since I note both my likes and dislikes about Elevation: first contact.



Look


This 174-pages-long softcover book has the same format that is already a trademark of Frostbyte Books. That is, roughly square in shape, one-column blocks of text and ample margins with additional notes. While this alone makes for a striking appearance, the margins sometimes contain too much blank space for my taste. Moreover, the font is grayish instead of black, which makes reading the text a tad more difficult.

The color cover is also quite striking. Axel Torvenius, the artist, has managed to create a stylish spaceship flying among some clouds whose semi-transparent hull makes it look out of the ordinary. And though the image is rather static, the ship looks cool enough to draw your attention to the book. The image wraps around to the back cover, where you can see a smaller ship, perhaps a drone, flying off. In fact, the ship on the cover may well be one of the Starseekers the player characters are going to pilot in the campaign, so it is cool to have it on the cover and be able to show it to your players.

Alas, the black and white interior art is not as good. It is not bad at all, though, with stylish hard shadows and landscapes that help set the mood. You can see the editor has reused some of the art here and there to save in art budget, and some of it is a bit dull, but at least the depiction of the different alien species is quite good. I wish the book included more art, but all in all, the presentation is elegant.

The starship the players are going to pilot in the campaign is described with a map and full game stats.


Contents


Roughly half the pages in Elevation are devoted to setting material, while the rest is comprised of just what you need to kick off a sci-fi campaign focused on exploration, action and intrigue: non-player characters, scenario hooks and 3 scenarios. There is even a 4th scenario you can download for free from the publisher's website, together with pre-generated playing characters, that serves as an introduction to the campaign. But first things first:

The list of contents

Setting information


When I started reading the book, I found it cool that the setting is described as an in-game manual of the organization the characters are assumed to be part of. It is a trick that fosters immersion, and it can also be used as a prop for your players: you can download for free this manual from the publisher's website, print it, and hope your players are interested enough to read some of it! The organization is called Elevation, and is a sort of an NGO dedicated to space exploration. Its main goal is to find new alien civilizations before any greedy or expansionist factions do, and then facilitate their smooth entry into the galactic community. This looks very much like Star Trek, doesn't it? "To boldly go where no man has been before..." and all that. Yes, but... there's a twist.


While Elevation was successful in its first glory years, the sad reality is that nowadays it is on a shoestring. To let you know exactly how desperate the situation is, every section of the "Field Operations Training Manual" is followed by an update of the (sad) current state of affairs. This is written by the granddaughter of the founder who now manages the organization while desperately trying to make ends meet. It is a clever way of making the players care even more for the organization they work for, since their success or failure means much more in this situation.

Moreover, it is a clever way of presenting two time periods for games masters to set their campaigns in. You can choose to run the campaign during the glory days of Elevation, which lends itself well for pulp sci-fi campaigns and daring heroes, or default to the present "hard reality", much more down-to-earth situation. In the default campaign, the characters will need to do missions to find resources for the organization, perhaps even doing favors to other organizations in return for assets. And all this while trying to find new planets and new intelligent life forms. So yes, it reminds me of Star Trek but with a lot of Firefly mixed in.

The "Manual" covers the assets of Elevation (or what's left of them), its several divisions and its 7 main non-player characters. At some points the text is interrupted by narrative pieces about the adventures of the original staff that help set the mood. Besides, the personal comments of the current director of Elevation are found after each subsection of the setting information. She gives her personal opinion on this and that, and adds credibility and depth to the setting. This reminded me of the way some setting supplements for Shadowrun were presented back in the day, with several hackers interrupting the text with their in-character comments.

Krayson Induestries and The Order of Science are two of the organizations described in Elevation.

Elevation itself is also described in game terms using the rules for circles included in M-Space. And so are a bunch of other organizations the player characters may deal, fight or negotiate with. Some of them are clearly adversaries, such as the Cypher Corp or The Order of Science. Others are designed to be allies, such as the Table of Avalon. However, they can be the opposite as well. All along this section, the text on the margins includes ideas to use these organizations instead of Elevation as the patron of the player characters. This gives games masters even more options to customize their campaign.

The technology section includes a list of 13 sci-fi guns and 2 hand combat weapons. I guess the author had his own ideas regarding sci-fi weaponry for this setting, and so he wasn't going to just refer players to the equipment list in M-Space. The result is an interesting list that feels different and gives a lot of options for gun-loving players. The same can be said of armor, which even includes power armor. The rest of the list is not long at all, mostly the handy "standard kit" for field operatives, which helps cut down time in gearing up your character.

Then you get a couple original brief details that make the setting be more its own thing, such as personal AIs and computer plastic. Moreover, I like that the book includes a bit of cybernetic replacements. At the time of writing this review, Clarence Redd is working on the supplement M-Space Companion that will include additional sci-fi details like cyberware and robots, but this is the first official step into cyberware for Mythras. Finally, the section covers the technology starships use to navigate space in this setting.

Spaceships use a technology that allows them to travel great distances through wormholes.

The next section is a brief description of the galactic laws governing the claiming of new planets, and the process of contacting sentient species for the first time or "first contact". This is central to what the players are going to be doing in the campaign.

Of course, this is followed by a description of the 7 major inhabited planets in the galaxy (including Terra, or the Earth), together with 6 alien species, and 4 galactic colonies. Four of these alien species are humanoids and wouldn't look out of place in any Star Wars or Star Trek movie. However, I prefer aliens to be as exotic as possible, such as the ones in Odd Soot, and that is why my favorite aliens in Elevation are the Aarqun and the K'Taar. Compared with these, other species such as the Aroosians (think anthropomorphic bulldogs) and the Thraxx (think lean orcs) come out as rather dull for me. Still, these alien species cover a diverse range: from the expansionist and cruel K'Taar to the business minded Rajolans, and of course, not to mention all the ones the player characters may find out in the course of the campaign.

The Aarqun look like arachnid crabs on tentacles and are pacifist psychics.

All these aliens and their planets are also described in game terms. They can even be used as player characters, if you like roleplaying challenges. Just one little detail seems to be missing, as in Odd Soot, and that's the location table of the two non-humanoids aliens. It's not strictly necessary if you just use the simplified combat rules in the core rulebook, but still somewhat annoying.

The whole setting in Elevation is described with only the absolute necessary pieces to start playing an exciting sci-fi campaign. For example, the K'Taar being so militaristic and dangerous, you would expect them to have collided against some other species in a galactic war, but no wars are mentioned. Although some people may enjoy a much more detailed galaxy, with the extended history of each alien species, complex politics and a hundred planets, the simpler approach Elevation takes has a couple advantages. Firstly, it lets you absorb the information quickly and get playing sooner. And secondly, it leaves more room for games masters to fill out the blanks with their own material.

Some of these spaces are deliberately left blank so every games master can exploit them as they see fit. Two of them are particularly prominent plot hooks that could make for long story arcs: Marcus Earther's disappearance and the lost ruins of the Rajolans. It could be said, then, that while Elevation lacks some depth, it provides a ton of possibilities.

Scenarios for a sci-fi campaign

(If you prefer to avoid any light spoilers, please skip this section and go straight to "Summing up" further down the page).


The Triton Incident, 21 pages. Not included in the book, but it is the first introductory scenario you can download for free and run to your players. Aside from the scenario proper, it includes nice maps and NPC stats (not included in the 21 page-count). You just need to download and print the 6 pregenerated player characters. If your players enjoy it, you can then buy the book and run the other 3 scenarios. If they want to keep going after that, then you already have your sci-fi campaign up and running! The scenario is quite original: basically a whoddunit situation in an isolated, almost empty space station in orbit around Triton, a moon of Neptune. Lots of surprises, nothing is what it seems, and the characters are in much more danger than they could ever imagine.

An atmospheric piece of art in The Triton Incident

The second half of the scenario is completely different and much more action-oriented. I like this scenario because it has several really tense situations, and is going to please all kinds of players. It might be possible to run it in a typical 4-hour session if your players think quick. As a bonus, it includes some androids.

Little Drone Lost, 14 pages. The first of the 3 scenarios included in Elevation is similar to the previous one in that it combines investigative work with really tense action. The players will be asked to track very important information and then defend it from different factions who are after it. I like how the author includes extended conflicts (see M-Space) to solve several scenes swiftly, some of them involving hacking. It's such a flexible mechanic. This scenario has several ramifications and introduces even more enemies that will probably reappear later on.

The Broker, 22 pages. This scenario brings to the fore the section about galactic law included in the book. It is quite original, as the first half involves maneuvering through boring bureaucracy in a fun way, with lots of roleplaying. As with the previous scenarios, the second half is completely different. This time, the characters will need to do some small jobs for a greedy merchant if they are to continue with their mission. Or look for other ways of raising money quickly. However, the players may circumvent the fun part if they think a particular course of action, which would be a pity, really. I like how this scenario offers many different sidequests players can choose to achieve their goal. Obviously, that means some of the ideas are going to be left unused, but there are ways to recycle them in some future scenario.

Scenarios include detailed maps like this city in planet Neo.

Brave New World, 26 pages. Here the players have the chance to make "first contact" with an unknown alien species. It is a momentous occasion, since it hasn't happened in the last 30 years. Obviously, the scenario includes lots of diplomacy, and lots of interesting roleplaying. Two cultures meeting for the very first time is always an exciting proposition. But there are also dangerous encounters. Depending on how well the players did in the previous scenarios, this one is going to be easier or much more difficult, since their enemies are trying to foil their plans. And so, players are going to be fighting in two fronts: trying to contact the aliens and simultaneously fending off their enemies. On the negative side, I have found one of those details that need to happen no matter what players do, but it is very easy to ignore if you feel it's unfair.

After this one, if you don't run any other scenarios, you'll have enjoyed a short but exciting campaign. However, you can keep exploring this setting, looking for more planets, aliens, fighting corporations and restoring Elevation to the rightful place its noble goals deserve.

The scenarios in the book cover very well what the player characters are supposed to be doing in the default Elevation campaign. Especially the last one can be used as a template for other first contacts, obviously with some changes to surprise your players. On top of that, while reading I couldn't help but come up with further ideas. If, however, your inspiration fails, the book includes a handy list of 50 scenario hooks to spark your imagination and turn Elevation into a long exploration campaign.


Summing up


Even at only 174 pages, Elevation: first contact is surprisingly good value, with lots of gameable material and ideas to keep playing from there. The setting focuses on exploration and is perfect for sandbox campaigns, while the default campaign enhances heroic scenes where your players need to think out of the box. Greedy corporations, evil aliens, pirates and the immensity of the unknown await your players. A great addition to the growing family of sci-fi d100 settings.

So, in a nutshell:

This supplement is for you if...

  • You love the M-Space RPG, but just want a setting to get your campaign started (and you do not like Odd Soot for whatever reason).
  • Star Trek and Firefly are TV series you enjoyed watching.
  • You are interested in using the scenarios for your own sci-fi campaign.
  • You want to use the setting and/or scenarios with another D100 system.


Do not get close to Elevation: first contact if...

  • You are not really into science-fiction (thanks for reading this anyway!).
  • You prefer other kinds of sci-fi campaigns.


Elevation: first contact is available from DrivethruRPG for 11$ (PDF) or 19$ (softcover book). The whole pack (PDF + softcover) is 30$. And do not forget to visit Frostbyte Books' website for free downloads, like 6 pregenerated characters, a summary of the setting and handouts for the players.

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