As I approached my winter break this year, I got the urge to engage with starfighter content. Do you know you can’t find Space, Above and Beyond anywhere streaming? No Wing Commander either. Thankfully, I found Battlestar Galactica streaming on the Peacock streaming network from NBC.
Speaking of Battlestar Galactica . . . what about an RPG that models the kind of political tensions, fights for survival, experiments in space sociology, and starfighter combat that you could find in that series?
Last year I backed Last Fleet on Kickstarter, in part because I was very happy with Bite Marks, another PbtA game from Black Armada. Let’s take a look at this offering.
Order of Battle
This review is based on the PDF of this game, which is 252 pages. The formatting is single column, with wide margins. Several of the section breaks include a full-page, full-color illustration, and there are full-body shots of example characters for various playbooks.
The book breaks down to a title page, a legal page, a credits page, a two-page table of contents, and five pages of index. The rest of the book is dedicated to presenting the rules, example settings, scenarios, and playbooks.
Overview of the Game, Key Rules
The Overview of the Game chapter begins with a quick sketch of the assumed setting for the game, a fleeing armada of ships trying to keep ahead of sapient alien fungus that lives in the hyperspace used to travel at FTL speeds. These aliens infect humans with spores to create sleeper agents, and often send biotechnological ships to assault the fleet.
In addition to framing the setting, this chapter takes great pains to explain how the game works, from touching on moves, mechanics, and stats, to how to teach the game and explain the concepts of the game itself. If you are familiar with PbtA games, the structure of the game will be familiar. There are several predefined moves that can be triggered by your actions in the narrative, and these moves are often resolved by rolling 2d6 + a stat, providing three tiers of resolution.
Key Rules moves on to discuss more in-depth applications of the rules, like framing scenes, triggering moves, pressure and breaking points, gaining XP, Doom Clocks, and Fleet Tracks.
Pressure is the primary track that individual characters use. When these fill up, there are several breaking point actions that a character can choose to take, which then resets the pressure track for that character.
The fleet tracks Attrition and Momentum. Attrition tracks how many supplies the fleet has, and when it fills up, something terrible happens. Momentum tracks how stable the fleet is, and when things get quiet, there is a chance that the fleet can seize an opportunity to do more than just run and survive.
Doom Tracks are a universal resolution measure any time something or someone is in danger of being destroyed or killed. This is just a four-tick clock, which fills in as consequences mount during various scenes. Even individual players don’t have a health mechanic, but rather they track Doom Tracks whenever they are in danger serious enough to potentially kill them.
The discussion of how a PbtA game works is very straightforward and conversational. This book ranks up there with my favorite “PbtA explanations for beginners” games. We haven’t got a close look at the playbooks yet, but while the astrological sign naming convention is definitely genre-appropriate, it’s hard to get a good read on what they do, in the same way that some playbooks communicate the playstyle of that playbook.
GMing the Game, GM Moves, Setting Up Your Game
This section expands on the way the GM operates in a PbtA game, with discussions on when to make a move, as well as the core and thematic moves specific to this game. In this case, the GM moves are tailored towards putting pressure on the characters, their relationships, and the fleet itself.
The Responding with a GM Move section is a great summary of how the conversation works in the game by breaking it down into four steps that can cycle through until a situation is resolved.
Like other PbtA games, there are GM principles, which, for those unfamiliar, basically define the mindset that the GM should be in when framing the narrative and making moves. The principles in this game are:
- No mercy
- Make space for interpersonal drama
- Make them care
- Everyone is up to something
- Make scarcity ubiquitous
- Make the fiction and the mechanics transparent
- Failure is not an option
These are some solid principles to keep in mind for a game that takes inspiration from Battlestar Galactica, but I wanted to touch on “make the fiction and the mechanics transparent.” Essentially, this is a principle that enjoins the GM to make sure everyone is clear on envisioning the scene the same way, and that the GM takes care to explain why the mechanics that the GM invokes are being invoked, by contextualizing them with the descriptions.
The GM moves explain what the moves entail, but an important part of the explanation that I appreciated is that there is a section that breaks down moves in context to parts of the story. For example, there are examples of how to frame threats regarding people, leadership, factions, the enemy fleet, infiltrators, and locations. This is a strong guideline to the contextual framing of moves as filtered by story elements.
The Setting Up Your Game chapter discusses setting options that will be presented later in the book and frames the mindset and starting situation for the fleet. This is followed by several questions to ask to provide more details and to grant inertia to different story elements in the game.
This section discusses setting up a game in multiple ways, either with the fleet in the middle of an active crisis, or recovering from a crisis that has just been resolved, and it explains how to start the game from either of these starting points.
Player Moves, Playbooks
The Player Moves section goes over what moves all players can trigger. These moves focus on combat, manipulation, covering up for shortcomings, and reaching out to others for comfort and support.
One of my favorite moves is the Wait Helplessly move, which is essentially a “help” move, but it requires the character to mark pressure on their track to give another player a bonus, at which point the character describes how and why they feel helpless to resolve the current situation.
Role Moves are present on each character sheet, so that various playbooks can be tailored to their position within the fleet. The role moves include the following:
The playbooks are all based on astrological signs. While you can get some idea about these if you know the astrology “tropes,” there are a few playbooks that have genre-specific quirks. For example, the Gemini is pushed to have shady connections, the Cancer is a natural leader, Pisces has some implied supernatural powers, and the Scorpio is a sleeper agent fighting to fix the damage that they do when they aren’t in control of their actions.
The Fleet, The Commonwealth and the Corax
There are different essays within this section, discussing military rank, example ships that might exist in the fleet, and the designations that different styles of ship might have. There is also a lengthy discussion of how to adjudicate damage, framing it contextually for different types of characters and ships in the game.
This section also moves on to discuss the default planets of the Commonwealth setting, the factions that exist, and the motivations of the individual characters in various positions.
Quick Start Scenarios: Cold War, Dictys and Danae
The Quick Start Scenarios in this section have pre-generated characters with built-in relationships, making these easy scenarios to run for convention games or one-shots. That said, the playbooks are in the “simplified” format that just explains what they have selected, not filled out versions of the playbooks.
Cold War involves pregens that are more “high level” characters in the fleet, including Admirals, Presidents, Chief Engineers, Military Advisors, and Flight Leaders. This is a scenario that is set up to model the “overview” of the game and provides some recognizable archetypes from the source material.
The second scenario is more focused, with pre-generated characters that represent the crew of a ship that is put in a bad position and must make decisions outside of the advice or orders of the wider fleet.
This section provides an alternate setting for the game, separate from the Commonwealth and the Corax conflict. Instead, this is envisioned as more of a high fantasy implementation of similar concepts. Instead of a fleet of starships, the setting is based around several flying cities with the ability to traverse alternate dimensions.
The cities are on the run from Hades’ forces, and instead of starfighters, pilots ride mythic beasts to fight in the skies against the furies that serve as one arm of Hades forces. The individual factions in this setting are the churches of various Olympian gods.
I appreciate novel alternative settings for a game, but I must admit, after getting calibrated to the Battlestar Galactica vibe, this is kind of a hard swerve, even if it is still about large conveyances with civilians on the run from a relentless pursuer.
Towards a Shining Planet One of the best things I can say about any game that I review is that I start to picture what kind of game I would want to run while reading the rules. That definitely happened while I was reading through this book
The discussion of standard PbtA procedures in this book is noticeably clear and direct. The Breaking Point actions are great built-in drama rules, and very thematic for the genre being emulated. The Role Moves are a succinct but effective way to model different narrative roles on a separate axis from the playbook personalities. The Doom Clock is a flexible mechanism for modeling building dread, and the standardized size retains the feel of an episodic drama.
Old Gods Die Hard
When reading all the playbooks, the theme of each becomes clear, but while the astrological references are appropriate for the source inspirations, the playbooks don’t really set expectations as well as they could with their names. Since Injuries and Shortages are narrative elements that get measured, I wish there were even a light system of established tags or conditions, instead of just knowing that those items can be narrative permission to start Doom Clocks with the right consequences.
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.
One of the best things I can say about any game that I review is that I start to picture what kind of game I would want to run while reading the rules. That definitely happened while I was reading through this book. I think if you are a fan of PbtA games, and you are a fan of science fiction, you are going to be happy with this offering.
If this is your first PbtA game, I think you will enjoy this game, but despite the clear expression of ideas, the reliance on established facts working as a gateway to narrative positioning for other moves feels a little more decoupled than it should.
What are your feelings about campaigns with a constant, reinforced theme? Have you played games with one major villain pursuing the heroes through the entire campaign? Have you played in campaigns where the resolution of one major goal has been the driving narrative force? Let us know in the comments below.