I love optimistic science fiction. I love being able to envision a future where the world is full of wonder and advancements for the betterment of all. I would argue that Star Trek has been instrumental in maintaining my mental health over the last couple of years. Despite that yearning for an optimistic future, there is still something compelling about a grittier future. A future where we have created more new problems than we have solved, and our ascent into the stars are like humanity throwing water on a grease fire.
The game I’m looking at lists 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Firefly as inspirations. It’s not quite the gritty horror of Alien, Event Horizon, or Dead Space, but it’s not exclusive of some of those elements either. Today, we’re taking a look at Death in Space, a game about people trying to survive and turn a profit in a universe that is actively falling apart. You aren’t heroes trying to stop impending doom, you’re just people riding it out to the end.
This game was published through the Free League Work Shop, and I was provided with a PDF review copy of the game. I have not had the opportunity to play the game, although I have experience with some of the games listed as influences on this one, including the Alien RPG and Mothership.
Safety and Content Warning
As I mentioned above, this isn’t exactly a horror sci-fi game, but it does have themes of nihilism and inevitable decay. Much of this is portrayed through the void corruption and cosmic mutations. As such, it touches on body horror elements. In addition to the vaguely nihilistic tone, the rules touch on topics like addictive substances.
Unfortunately, while there is some guidance about collaboratively creating what the group wants to see in the campaign, there isn’t much discussion about safety tools. Given that the book describes campaign creation as collaborative, that would be a perfect time to establish on-screen and off-screen elements and hard stops, as well as active safety tools.
The Book of Death
This review is based on the provided PDF, which is 136 pages long. This includes a credits page, an index of tables, a table of contents, as well as a two-page cheat sheet with the most commonly used rules summarized in one place.
On the credits page, Mothership and Mork Borg are listed as inspirations, and the layout does feel like a hybrid of both of those. The pages have the economy of presentation the Mothership utilizes, as well as the dramatic splashes of color native to Mork Borg. The layout does probably lean more towards the Mothership side of things than the riotous chaos of Mork Borg’s pages.
Space, from End to End
The book consists of the following sections:
- Character Creation
- Hub Creation
- Playing the Game
- General Rules
- Void Points
- Condition and Spare Parts
- Space Travel
- Spacecraft Confrontations
- The Tenebris System
- Welcome to the Ring
- Tables and Tools
I would say that the arrangement of the book feels a little stream of consciousness, but because most topics are touched on in a simple and modular fashion, I don’t think the structure feels like as much of a detriment as it would be if the rules were more elaborate or chained together more rigidly and procedurally.
What’s the Story
So, this is gritty science fiction, but it’s not sci-fi horror. What is it? The book focuses mainly on a location called the Tenebris system. The known universe is recovering from the Gem War, a war over resources that largely destroyed interplanetary governments, leaving behind corporations unable to hold together interstellar society.
Since the end of the war, there is a constant static behind every transmission. Although no one can prove it, many believe it’s the sign of the universe collapsing into entropy. Nothing new is made, and people fight to scavenge and rebuild old machines to keep them running.
Player characters have a hub, whether it’s a space station or a starship. They take jobs to keep their hub running, and potentially to be able to upgrade it. Characters build up Void Points, which can be used to make characters more successful, but may also trigger Void Corruption, which can be anything from useful to disturbing to devastating.
One of the bits of lore that really stood out to me and hammered home the feel of the setting is that large ships might have a flock of smaller ships following them, either to salvage bits that fall off of the ship or to salvage the freighter if it breaks down. Desperation, opportunity, and predation.
Characters and Rules
Character creation is fully randomized. There are four stats, which can range from 0 to 3. There is one default difficulty number, and all rolls are rolled against that number, or against an opposed roll from another character. The core resolution mechanic is to roll 1d20 plus the ability.
The next element of a character is their origin. These range from short-lived clones, AIs implanted into organic bodies, human rebels or those that routinely live part of their lives in hibernation pods, people cursed to have their minds skip through time, and strange void shamans. Each of these origins might have one or two minor abilities related to their origins, such as the Velocity Cursed’s ability to ask a question about the future once per session, or the Chrome’s ability to communicate with machines.
Character creation continues on tables for background, traits, drives, character details, and past allegiances. While these don’t grant a specific game advantage, they do give you and your gamemaster hooks to add to the campaign.
While the randomized nature of character creation hearkens back to older game designs, the game also utilizes advantage and disadvantage. For anyone not familiar with the terminology, different circumstances allow players to roll two d20s, and either take the better or worse of the two rolls. When a character fails a roll, they gain a Void Point. Characters can spend a Void Point to gain advantage on a roll, but if they fail the check even with advantage, they must make a Void Corruption check.
Characters might have a Cosmic Mutation, which is a special ability that can be triggered by spending Void Points. These tend to be simple abilities, like being able to send a short telepathic message or controlling machines at a distance.
Void Corruption is the much less pleasant manifestation of the Void. Many of these manifestations are disturbing but don’t contain specific game rules, but some manifestations, like the Anarchy Program, can turn into a progressive degradation that renders the PC an NPC.
Combat uses elective initiative. The character that initiates actions goes first, then nominates another character to go next. Rounds are generally about 10 seconds long, and each character can perform an action and move up to 15 meters.
Characters that drop to 0 hit points make a check to see if they are stable, or if they die immediately. Because the universe is at least a little bit broken, when a character dies, they roll on the Death in Space table. Characters have a vision of how they were meant to die before they expire, showing them that something is wrong with the universe. I kind of love that little strange bit of procedure and story building.
Hubs can either be a space station or a ship, and they represent the reason that player characters do the jobs they do. Having a hub means they have a stable home and means of income. Having a hub also means scavenging for parts and working hard to keep the hub up and running.
Hubs have backgrounds and quirks. This might mean that it’s a decommissioned warship, a space station that mysteriously appeared from the future, or anything in between. Quirks might mean the hub needs especially long start-up times, is infested with void dwelling creatures or comes with native robotic pets.
Hubs are made up of frames, power systems, and modules. Modules have to draw less power than the hub can generate. Frames have a condition, which tracks what state of repair the hub is in. The condition can drop when mishaps occur and require PCs to perform maintenance to restore the hub to its full condition.
Space, The Fatal Frontier
In addition to rules for adjudicating tasks and performing maintenance on the hub, there are examples of creatures for conflict, statistics for combat gear, and rules for performing tasks in zero gravity or in environments where tracking oxygen is important.
The setting assumes a few different scales of starship speed. This includes rules for traveling in system, between systems, and between galaxies. For long-range travel, expensive and rare bridging technology is used to allow a ship to slip between two points in space. Less immediate travel may require extended periods of cryosleep.
In general, this is represented in three long-range starship speeds – slow, fast, and bridging. Traveling between galaxies may still take a bridger ship months, while a slow-speed starship just traveling in the system is going to take months to reach the outer reaches. Each type of travel has an encounter chart, as well as charts for cryopod and bridging malfunctions.
There are lots of tables for generating random elements in the game. These include obstacles, non-player characters, ships and space stations, crews, and contracts. It would be fairly easy to run several sessions without doing much in the way of planning, just randomly generating the available jobs, and allowing the PCs to pick from them.
Welcome to the Ring!
Welcome to the Ring is meant to be the introductory adventure for the game. I like to see what example adventures in core rulebooks look like, because of how they communicate the expected way to play the game. In this case, the sample adventure presents the Iron Ring as a location, and details the following areas:
- Docking Bay
- Common Area
- Engine Room
- Computer Center
Unlike some more traditional adventures, the player characters are only assumed to arrive at the station, but not to have any specific goal in mind. The adventure comes from various factions that are at odds with one another, how those hostilities might escalate, and the actions taken by people on the station, as time progresses. As the PCs look for work and interact with NPCs, they can end up helping or hindering different factions and changing how the expected chain of events might evolve. If hostilities continue to escalate, the PCs may even need to decide the best time to make their exit.
Solid Contract These rules are a great example of how to present an evocative setting, and how to use the rules to reinforce expected gameplay.
This book does an excellent job of conveying a very specific feeling. While nowhere near as procedural, I can’t help but think of a simpler version of Blades in the Dark, where player characters are just trying to survive and get ahead, even though the world around them is terrible and isn’t going to get any better. The individual rules are all simple to adjudicate and grasp, and being able to randomly general jobs and events reinforces the “slice of life, but also maybe you die” theme of the game.
I mentioned the organizational quirks above, but I don’t think those are a major setback. That said, the rules jump straight into talking about running a campaign and making characters, and while this is a book with some simple and easy to understand rules, the way the text rushes full speed ahead without addressing some of the basics of RPGs means that this might skip right past some introductory explanation needed by newcomers to the hobby.
Qualified Recommendation–A product with lots of positive aspects, but buyers may want to understand the context of the product and what it contains before moving it ahead of other purchases.
If you are a fan of quirky, simple, evocative rules, this will probably appeal to you. If you are new to the RPG hobby, I think you can puzzle out the basics of RPGs to understand the rules, but there may be a few hard disconnects as the text dives into the meat of the game. These rules are a great example of how to present an evocative setting, and how to use the rules to reinforce expected gameplay. However, if you aren’t into gritty science fiction, you may want to do a fly-by.
What are some of your favorite examples of “working class” science fiction? What fantastic technologies make it hard to envision a setting as gritty, and what downsides can you envision existing alongside standard science-fiction tropes to make things a little bit edgier? We want to hear from you in the comments below!