Space Opera is one of the earliest genres to enter the roleplaying game space, along with fantasy and cosmic horror. While it’s never quite broken through to the same popularity, space opera is always out there, on the fringes of imagination, waiting to go where no campaign has gone before.
If you have never seen the term before, Space Opera is a sub-genre of science fiction where scientific accuracy often takes a back seat to adventures that involve starships, multiple planets, and melodramatic storylines. If you’ve seen Star Wars or Star Trek, you know the genre, even if you didn’t think you knew it.
Today we’re going to look at Infinite Galaxies—Roleplaying in a Bright Future.
This review is based on the PDF and physical copy of Infinite Galaxies. The book is 298 pages, with a full-color cover and black and white interior art in both the printed book and PDF. There is a two-page index and three pages of Kickstarter backers.
The layout of the pages has a starfield border, with a faux-computer display at the top right-hand page. The pages are single column, with clear, bold headers, and chapter introductions have full-page black and white artwork. The gear, vessels, and mounts sections all have separate tables and various illustrations of the topics in those sections.
All of the artwork is attractive and professional, but it does feel like some of the art is thematically dissonant from some of the other pieces in the book.
Physically, the book is a paperback, and digest-sized. The black and white pages are clear and well reproduced, although the thickness combined with the size of the book makes it warp a bit. The front and back artwork looks great in physical form.
Part One: The Basics
The opening sections of the book describe the type of action that the game is seeking to present. Very early on it explicitly mentions playing in a bright future, with positively motivated heroes, and that the biggest inspirations for the game are Star Wars and Star Trek. It mentions being flexible in providing a framework for a wide range of space opera stories, as well as providing a default setting for players that want to engage with it.
Early in the “How to Play” section, we get a detailed explanation of game terms that will be used in the book. Many of them may be familiar to people that have experienced Powered by the Apocalypse games before, but I don’t remember many that are this thorough with terminology explanations this early in the book.
If you aren’t familiar with Powered by the Apocalypse games, it examines the 2d6 + stat resolution mechanic, and the three-tiered outcomes of moves (miss with complication, success with complication, success), and the basic moves (those not associated with a specific playbook) are presented in the section as well. While most of the moves are very straightforward, there are a few more fiddly mechanics presented in this section as well (such as using gear and restocks, which allow for expendable gear to be replenished under certain circumstances).
The How to GM section gives some example NPCs suitable for a space opera setting. These include hostile cyborgs, explorers, pilots, merchants, raiders, military, diplomats, smugglers, robots, and beasts in various descriptions.
There are also several pages on running your first session, and how to deal with characters with multiple playbooks (unlike some PbtA games, Infinite Galaxies only recommends distinct starting packages, with some overlap between playbooks working on a conceptual level).
It’s a very solid, informational, well-detailed start to the book. That said, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that the sample playgroup, used throughout the book from this point on, appears to be an all-male group, with all-male characters except for one, who is playing a character that uses she/her pronouns. That feels like a huge missed opportunity for inclusion just in the examples.
While it’s present in a lot of science fiction, some of the raider stat blocks also fall back on some uncomfortable “tribal warrior/warrior culture” stereotypes in portraying one of the setting villains.
Part Two: Characters and Gear
The next section of the book gives a breakdown of character creation, playbooks, and gear. Gear, in this case, includes starships, vehicles, mounts, and tools. This is probably the biggest section of the book, but much of that is from the various descriptions of gear, vehicles, and mounts, many of which are summarized in charts.
The beginning of the character creation section has a nicely organized checklist for how to walk through the process of creating characters. In addition to picking playbooks and assigning statistics, players will also be picking a starting package for their character (if the playbook is your class, the starting package is your sub-class or customization), as well as establishing relationships with other characters.
The playbooks include the following:
- The Ace
- The Explorer
- The Jack
- The Leader
- The Psi
- The Robot
- The Scientist
- The Soldier
There are additional playbooks for The Ship and The Companion. The Ship is a function of The Ace playbook, and The Companion is an advance that players can take to have their own personal best friend/sidekick. Each playbook has a set of drives, relationships, starting equipment, and origins. Except for The Robot, one of the origins on each playbook is expressly for “alien” characters.
Relationships work very similarly to the bonds in Dungeon World, where you have a series of fill in the blank questions, although one relationship will be special, that rolls with an extra bonus in instances where other relationships come into play.
The drives are specific things that a character wants to accomplish. For each milestone (established subsections of the story that the GM can declare), players pick two drives for their character, which act as XP triggers. Players can swap these drives whenever the GM determines that a milestone has been met and a new one is active.
Infinite Galaxies wears a lot of its Dungeon World DNA on its sleeve in the playbooks. Instead of having a more space opera-themed set of stats, the game goes with STR, DEX, CON, INT, WIS, and CHA, and many of the wilderness exploration moves from Dungeon World are still expressed in this game, interacting with rations and disposable survival gear. Depending on the type of space opera you are familiar with, the wilderness moves and gear feel like they could easily not come up if no one takes a scout, and no milestones call for heavy exploration of planetary wilderness for extended periods.
Characters can be harmed in multiple ways. They can take debilities to ability scores, they can take vitality damage, or they can take wounds. Wounds are generally lasting injuries that are marked when a character has run out of vitality, which is much easier to regenerate. Not unlike Dungeon World, each playbook has an assigned damage die that the player rolls to determine damage, if a move indicates they do so.
Gear takes up a bit of space, because it does have a bit more granularity than PbtA games often give gear. In addition to having tags that generally function as narrative guides or permission, some rules govern the difference between personal and vehicle scale damage, boosts to the damage dice being rolled, gear that can ignore armor, and medical treatments that can remove injuries from characters.
Part Three: Setting
This section spends time detailing what you should have ready to draw from if you are creating your own setting, the importance of having a theme and tone in mind, as well as a few pages painting the broad strokes of the assumed baseline setting of the book, the Star Patrol setting.
In addition to providing some checklists for things to include, and guidelines for establishing theme and tone, this section also spends time on the importance of how technology is expressed, and how naming conventions play into choices on theme and tone. There is even some discussion on how to change or create new playbooks to fit a customized setting.
This is really great high level, high concept information on setting, and even though the next section moves into story, specifically, there were a few places where I wished they had drilled down a little more on one of the many big topics they touch on in this section. What they do is good, but it remains at the higher conceptual levels for much of the discussion.
Part Four: Story
A lot of the story section is focused on an area that is often overlooked, which is reading player input. There are discussions about asking good questions, taking worthwhile feedback, and reading choices in playbooks and gear as communication about the types of stories and the direction the players want the game to move.
What I wish we had a little more of in this section are example story arcs. Space opera is a huge genre, and while the book spends a lot of time looking at big arcs and ways to make settings memorable, it doesn’t give many examples of exactly what a group of adventurers might be in the setting. While part of this is going to be reading player desire, having some framing conventions going in would be welcome as well.
For example, we’re told a little about Star Patrol, and what side Earth is on, and who the main enemies are. But we aren’t told what a fighter pilot squadron as an adventuring team would look like, versus smugglers and bounty hunters in the border regions, versus a team of relief workers going to galactic disaster sites. I wanted just a little bit more campaign framework level concepting.
The final section has a grab bag of different materials in it. First is the section for thanks and the Kickstarter backers. Next is the section that gives more detail on the Star Patrol setting. That detail comes in the form of more detail on various power groups, geographical sectors of the galaxy, and specific alien options that can be swapped for the more generic alien origins given on the playbooks, to customize the species active in the setting.
Punch It For anyone with a passing interest in space opera, it should be very easy for a new player to see something they recognize from their favorite media, and customize the character they want to play quickly.
I enjoy how clearly the playbooks convey space opera archetypes, and I like how flexible the starting packages for each of the playbooks make them. Just the choice of playbooks and packages can easily inform the kind of game a group will be playing. This is one of the best Powered by the Apocalypse games for explaining exactly what the terminology used in the game means, spending more time on deliberately explaining soft versus hard moves and the transition between then.
From an “at the table” perspective, I’ve run this game at multiple conventions during the “beta” phase of production, and I ran it for several players that had no experience with PbtA games previously. It was very easy for them to pick up on the archetypes and understand them, and the drives worked well to push them towards resolving the jobs and dilemmas I was establishing with milestones.
They Told Me They Fixed It
The game does a great job of explaining all the terminology that it uses, but it feels like it borrows more from Dungeon World than it needs to convey a space opera setting. The ability scores don’t inform the feel of the setting in the same way other PbtA game stats do, because Dungeon World is calling back to Dungeons and Dragons, which isn’t what Infinite Galaxies does.
Using multiple polyhedral damage dice, and having exploration moves that hearken to ration use and encumbrance are a few other artifacts that I don’t think resonate with a game that is trying to capture the feel of stories like Star Wars or Star Trek. They aren’t poorly written or expressed rules, just rules that don’t feel like they are as relevant to the extant tropes.
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.
Infinite Galaxies is a solidly written and expressed game that will give you all the tools you need to run an exciting space opera game. For anyone with a passing interest in space opera, it should be very easy for a new player to see something they recognize from their favorite media, and customize the character they want to play quickly.
It loses some of its edge by not fine-tuning a few of the borrowed pieces of Dungeon World tech to fully align the game with the genre and tropes that it is playing with. It does what it does well, it just might have done it with a stronger adherence to tone by cutting loose a few more rough edges.
What are some of your all-time favorite science fiction RPGs? How often have you played in space opera campaigns? Do you favor existing pop-culture settings, or settings that have been unique to your group? We would love to hear your answers in the comments below. I’ll keep hailing frequencies open for them.