sábado, 13 de junio de 2020

Review of M-Space Companion and Circles of Steel

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Sometimes role playing games need some additional rules to really put the icing on the cake. There seems to be a tradition of compiling all these extra rules in supplements called "Companions". Such is the case with M-Space, the science fiction role playing game with D100 mechanics based on the Mythras RPG. Since FrostByte Books released the M-Space RPG, fans have been eagerly awaiting the companion that would complete and fill the few gaps left in a otherwise solid rulebook. So below you can read my review of the M-Space Companion, a supplement with extra rules, a scenario and other useful bits for running science fiction campaigns, authored by Scott Crowder and Clarence Redd. I have also included a mini review of a supplement by Alex Greene: Circles of Steel, released at the same time, which is like a small companion of the companion.


N.B.: Clarence Redd sent me a copy of the M-Space Companion so I could write this review. It's only fair to tell you about it in case you think this fact may have biased my opinion. However, I believe I have been objective and pointed out both what I like and what I dislike.


The look


The M-Space Companion is a 124-page-long book in full color. It follows the same smart layout style as the rulebook and its other supplements, that is, squarish format and single column text with ample margins usually filled with examples and further details. It is also nicely illustrated. As with the M-Space rulebook though, sometimes the amount of blank space can be unnerving.

The cover art by Kuldar Leement is quite striking: it is a view from above of two red space ships diving onto the surface of a planet filled with huge chimneys. It looks as if they are going to infiltrate or attack a planet-sized factory, so it suits perfectly the science-fiction genre. In fact, I would love to play a scenario with such a premise. The interior art, by Clarence Redd and Axel Torvenius is also of high quality, even better than the art in the M-Space rulebook.

The art in M-Space Companion has a nice realistic style.

The contents


The complete title of the book is M-Space Companion, origins, robots and cybernetics and of course that is an important hint about its contents. You might be wondering what is "origins" exactly. But let's go step by step.

Contents page of the M-Space Companion

Cybernetics and robots

First off, these are the two aspects I mentioned in my review of M-Space that I felt were missing in the rulebook. So I'm glad to see them both right there in the first and second sections of the Companion.

I was also looking forward to reading the cybernetics rules because I also tried to figure out how to do them with Mythras for a cyberpunk/Shadowrun setting (read them here). The ones in the Companion are simple to use and straight to the point, and include staples of the cyberpunk genre like the system instability, which is what happens when you install too many on your body, or when they malfunction because of damage or bad quality.

There are 32 items of cybernetic implants listed, aside from prosthetic limbs. For example: armor, comms, headjack, skill boost, speed, stealth, etc. The fact they are listed with generic names makes them sound a bit bland when compared to other games, but this only serves as a reminder that M-Space is a generic toolbox for building your own sci-fi campaigns in much the same way that the core Mythras book is a toolbox mostly for fantasy campaigns. I love that the author borrows concepts from and refers to the Mythras Companion (the other companion!) in the book in several places. For example, the different campaign power levels in order to establish how many cybernetic implants PCs can start with.

You may hate that, to read the game rules for each cybernetic implant, you need to turn to another section of the book (Modules, see further down), which is rather uncomfortable. However, it makes sense from the point of view of the rules when you read the next section: robots!

A couple pages of the section on how to create robots as player characters

The rules for creating robots follow the same modular structure as the ones for creating space ships described in M-Space. That is, they are all build by putting together several modules with different functionalities. This is the essence of a toolbox, giving the maximum flexibility to GMs. This section also includes rules for creating robot player characters and keeps them extremely simple by making them almost identical to creating normal characters with cybernetic implants. Which makes a lot of sense, really. Of course, you may wonder if robots really need a POW (Power) characteristic, but delving into these metaphysical issues would over complicate things, so make yourself a favor and just go with it. Both the cybernetic and the robot section include character creation examples, which is useful to see these rules in action. Moreover, the robot section also includes 6 premade simple robots to use in your games or to make it easier to create new ones by using a template. Since some of them are drones, these can be mined for a cyberpunk campaign as well.

The next section called Modules is where all the game data of robotic and cybernetic modules are described. As I said earlier, it really makes sense to have them all in one place because many of them can be used both as cybernetic and robotic enhancements. Isn't that clever? For example, you can have some stealth enhancing implants installed on your human body or on your robotic body, and they both work the same way in game terms. In this case, the stealth module makes the wearer avoid detection by sensors and surveillance equipment by imposing a -20% in Perception tests on simple robots and computers. Another example, cybereyes (here called a Sense module) give the robot or the cyberhuman infrared, night vision or zoom (one per module). It is quite simple. On the one hand, I'm still missing some of the staples in games like Cyberpunk 2020 or Shadowrun, such as wired reflexes. On the other, the examples given in the book are by no means exhaustive, and by using them as reference you can create all the ones you need. For example, I would make wired reflexes as follows: +1 action point or +1d10 initiative per module. Number of modules: 2. Installs: 3. Location: all. Availability: Classified. Cost: 1000/3000/6000 Cr.

Pages of the Modules section


Q Tech

The next section is interesting, as it describes such advanced technology that it looks like magic. Q Tech or Quantum Technology is a sort of living implant that connects to the users' neural cortex and allows them to create fantastic effects. Some of these resemble theist magic from Mythras, like Heal Body or Flight. Others are completely new and have more to do with the sci-fi genre such as Transference, that allows a person to transfer speed from one space ship to another, or Shape Metal, which allows you to quickly repair damage to a space ship, robot or any mechanical device. There are a total of 64 abilities of varying degrees of awesomeness.

I like that its effects and mechanics are quite distinct from the psionics rules included in M-Space, so it is a sort of a second magic system for the game. However, in order to use these powers, cough!, extraordinary technology, characters need to have the right implant and the requisite level in certain skills, which is quite high for the most powerful abilities. This is enough to make the effects quite controllable in your campaign, because some of them can be game changers. Contemplate for example the Star Sight effect, which allows a character to use the sensors of a ship on any location within a radius of 6 parsecs (!), with real-time feedback. Or Boom!, which allows you to create an explosion doing at least 1d6 damage to everyone in a 100 m radius (!). Or Genesis, which allows a character to terraform 1 mile of terrain around her!

A couple pages from the section on Q Tech

Another detail that helps reign in the power of Q Tech is that every implant provides access to only a limited set of thematic abilities (for example: engineering, medical, warrior) and you can't change it once it is set in place. All in all, a cool addition to a science fiction campaign, once the GM has considered its implications, of course. I can imagine whole campaigns or story arcs revolving around just one of these implants and the consequences they can have when players finally have access to the most extraordinary abilities. A galaxy of possibilities for any imaginative player!


Origins

I have only played the Traveller RPG once, long ago, but I know how fun its detailed character creation system can be, as it helps you create a rich background by making some rolls on several tables. Well the M-Space Companion includes a system that slightly resembles that, only much more simple. Scott Crowder (who also wrote this) called it "Origins". It is an alternative character creation method for M-Space that helps you create your character background while you assign him or her the skill points per culture and career. There are now 8 different home worlds for each of the 3 starting cultures in M-Space for a total of 24, and they each include their own life event table. Combining that with an additional life event table for each of the careers included, you get rich backgrounds for your characters. Not only that, but the random process becomes more interesting because you can gain passions, rivals, money, contacts and extra points in several skills (even psionic powers) as you go. While the Mythras core book already includes one generic fantasy life event table, these ones here remind a bit of the family background creation in RuneQuest Roleplaying in Glorantha. Let's give them a try.

I have decided to create Trelloy Mahire, a guy born on V506, a station on an asteroid belt. All his family are miners, but he has been trained as a detective. When I get to the part where I have to assign the 150 bonus skill points, I assign 90 of them and I choose to decide the rest by rolling 6 times on the life event table made up of my chosen culture and career.

My first roll is (96): early in his career, Trelloy worked as an informant for the security forces at the station. He participated in a drug bust against the Runds criminal gang, however, his ignorance turned it all quickly into a messy gunfight that he fortunately managed to survive (thus increasing his Combat Style by 15%). Next roll: (3). Some time later, he found by chance an ancient artifact that had been discarded after being mined from the asteroids. Intrigued by its pulsating blue light, he quickly pocketed it. Soon after that (8), his cousin hit a motherlode and he gained 4000 credits for casually having suggested him where to mine next. He learned a lot about Mining (+15%) thanks to all the buzz around him. Months later (60), he decided to enlist the corporate security forces and after some training, he became more proficient at dealing with the underground and knowing who's who (Streetwise +15%). Years later (20) the corporation running the mining station introduced new strict policies that ended up causing a revolt among the miners. In the ensuing fights, Trelloy lost 1000 credits, but increased his combat instincts (+15% Combat Style) and secretly helped the miners from inside the corporate security forces. Thanks to that, the miners forced the corporation sign an agreement where they would manage half the business. That gained Trelloy both a useful contact in the corporation and a staunch ally in Mara Ubak, leader of the revolt (gain passion Loyalty Mara Ubak 60%). After that, (26) the ore kept flowing, so he earned back the lost 1000 credits and was busy dealing with corporate representatives after that (+15% Commerce).

I love the way these random results help you create an interesting background. By the way, there is a free to download PDF at FrostByte Books that provides 7 additional origins tables for creating player characters, 3 for new cultural home planets and 3 for careers. Moreover, it includes 6 pregenerated characters, ready to use for the scenario included in the Companion (see further down). Download the PDF here.

The PDF with pregenerated characters includes 9 detailed portraits so you can freely choose one for your character.


Hacking

The M-Space Companion also includes rules for hacking into systems, computers, vehicles, robots, cybernetic implants, you name it. You may wonder if they are really necessary, provided that M-Space already includes rules for extended conflicts, which are great for this. For example, in the campaign supplement Elevation (read the review), there is a hacking scene in one of the scenarios which does precisely that. Well, the Companion follows exactly this same route, only adding some information as to what skill % and damage pool should have every level of security measures and other bits and pieces.

I was rather disappointed by these rules. I guess I was expecting a bit more depth or crunch from them, but maybe it's better that they have been kept simple. Since I also tried my hand at devising hacking rules for Mythras (you can read them here), my expectations were high. Still, the rules in the M-Space Companion describe 5 gear items for hackers, computer sub-systems and how to assign stats to computers.

First pages of the "Computers and hacking· section

The book also includes 3 new careers that take into account the rules for robots, cybernetics and hacking: hacker, bio-hacker and maker. And after a brief section about adapting the combat effects to the new rules, we finally get to...


The scenario

Escape from Mosek-Uhn is a scenario for one session of play that is fit to kick start a sci-fi campaign. The player characters start as prisoners who attempt to escape the mines they are working in as slaves. If they succeed, they already have a good reason to stick together as a party of PCs, as they will have a common enemy. Of course, the pregenerated characters included in the Companium Addendum are great to start playing much faster, and they already come with backgrounds suited to the scenario, some of which will create interesting roleplaying scenes. It's only a pity none of them is a robot, as that would have helped showcasing the new rules in the book.

Once I started reading the scenario I saw myself absorbed by the narrative, because it feels very much like a science fiction movie in which the characters need to think quickly. However, when I run it, which I hope to do soon, I will make sure to come up with other ways the scenario can progress if the players don't follow the suggested plan at a couple key scenes.

I like it when scenarios include portraits of all the NPCs.

Circles of Steel


Inspired by the M-Space Companion, Alex Green has published 13 organizations for robots and cyborgs using the rules for circles in the M-Space rulebook. These can be useful as background or allies of your robot and hacker PCs, or they could be enemies and allies of the characters in your campaign. They also bring a much needed flavor to the M-Space rules, as well as ideas for scenarios, and the book is beautifully illustrated. My favorite circle is the C.O.T.E.S. or Church of the Electric Sheep, a cult for sentient robots heavily inspired by Philip K. Dick.

The cover of Circles of Steel and a couple interior pages

The 32-page PDF of Circles of Steel is "pay what you want", and the print version is 3'30$. You can download it from DrivethruRPG.


Summing up


The M-Space Companion is a great addition to any M-Space campaign. A must have, really, even if just for the robot rules. It provides more tools for gamesmasters to adapt to their campaigns and still manages to keep things simple and modular. It also opens the possibility to run cyberpunk adventures! So, all in all:

You will probably like it if:

  • You want a simple, modular system for cybernetic implants and robots in your sci-fi campaign.
  • You want to make the character creation process much more flavorful.
  • You think Q Tech can make your campaign more interesting by letting the characters have access to extraordinary abilities.
  • You want rules to play in a cyberpunk setting using the Mythras rules.


It may disappoint you if:

  • You are expecting flavorful rules for hacking and cybernetics. Like Mythras and M-Space, this is just an extra generic toolbox for you to tinker with.
  • You want rules for transhumanism, cyberpilots or any other piece of the science fiction genre not covered by the book.

The M-Space Companion is available at DrivethruRPG in soft-cover POD (18$) and PDF (10$) versions. During the first days after its release you get a 15% discount on the price. Do not forget to visit the FrostByte Books website for free downloads. Does it sound interesting? If you already have this Companion, do you agree with my review? ;-)

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