When I first started playing roleplaying games, I learned a lot of words from context. The longer I engaged with the hobby, the more I started to look up the words I was encountering, especially when multiple words seemed to be similar from context. I wanted to understand the origins and connotations of those words, so I wasn’t just repeating what I had read without reflection.
By doing this, I learned about the origins of many European words, and how similar concepts appeared in different locations. I learned a little about history, and I learned a little about folklore. The fact that I learned about European history and folklore from this practice says a lot about the amount of representation available in games when I was younger. It still says a lot about it today.
The game I’m looking at today, Orun: Post-Apotheosis Afro-Centric Space Opera, uses a lot of West African spiritual terminology to communicate its setting. All the details in the book can be understood in context, but the deeper meaning and origin of these terms is even better understood when you learn that, for example, Sopona is derived from the name of a god of smallpox, or that Ikorira is a term that denotes hatred or aversion.
Just as you can watch many space operas and see futuristic versions of European and American military uniforms and clothing styles, Orun models a science fiction setting where clothing, architecture, and gear look like futuristic versions of West African examples.
The Shape of Things to Come
This review is based on the PDF of Orun: Post-Apotheosis Afro-Centric Space Opera. The PDF is 290 pages. The layout isn’t a standard or even digest-sized book layout, but is instead more of a square presentation (remember Star Wars Saga Edition?)
The book itself has a two-column layout, with “high tech” borders, and centered headers addressing what section of the book you are currently reading. There is a lot of full-color artwork depicting the people and locations of the setting, which captures the wonder and energy of the narrative.
The book has a title page, a table of contents, a two-page index, a sample character sheet, a quick reference character creation guide, a map of known space, and three pages of Kickstarter backers. Each chapter starts with a full-page, full-color piece of art related to the topic introduced in the chapter.
Chapter One: A Primer
The introductory material explains what the setting of Orun is, as well as what you will need for the game itself. The basic means of adjudicating the game requires two ten-sided dice as well as separate tokens to track Edges and Hitches, which are generated at certain levels of resolution for tasks.
The galaxy described in the material has seen multiple sapient species come into contact and conflict with one another. Eventually, these species are introduced to the Orisha, enlightened, god-like beings that introduced miraculous FTL technology and the path to enlightenment, allowing beings that walk the path fully to ascend to another plane of existence.
After the Orisha moved on, the Sopona virus causes a massive, galaxy-spanning war. The virus is a “thought virus,” which causes those infected to become intolerant, to varying degrees, with the final stage being irrational violence and destructive impulses. After this war, the galaxy is fractured. Parts of the galaxy no longer have access to the post-scarcity technology that was widespread before the war. This gives rise to noble houses, alternate empires, crime syndicates, and old institutions that are much more prone to conservatism than they previously had been.
This is a very zoomed-out summary of the setting. There is a lot more history packed into this section, including different stages of FTL travel, previous wars, and the individual history of several of the cultures that make up the greater galactic community. The setting, as it stands, is split between about five major political and socio-economic factions, and divided between worlds that have access to post-scarcity resources and those that do not.
With its emphasis on a post-scarcity society that is limited in how much it can share its technology, neutral powers that were once part of that society, and a powerful galactic criminal syndicate, a lot of this setting brings to mind the most recent season of Star Trek Discovery, although this setting was in development well before the current season. Regardless, it does make for some interesting inspirational viewing to have a pop-culture touchstone.
Chapter Two: Character Creation
While this section is called character creation, between each section we get more setting detail. To start, we get details on the Djali, the characters that the player characters represent. These are people that are partially ascended, and trying to fix the issues of the galaxy, helping others reach ascendency. They have distanced themselves from the Ministry of Ascendence, which is carefully limiting access to various rites of ascension.
We move into a section on individual species, which presents a few pages of general information and history, a full-page illustration, the starting statistical modifications, and defining talents for their culture, in three different tiers.
Strictly speaking, there are no “humans” in the game, although the Oyan effectively serve that purpose. The species include:
- Ako’Obirin (Binary symbiotic protoplasm creatures)
- Alimnuro (Energy beings in humanoid containment suits)
- B’Bocci (An aquatic sea slug-like species)
- Fitora (An insectoid species with partitioned memories)
- Holowan (Telepathic quadrupeds)
- Igi Eniyan (Hedonistic plant people)
- Karok (Adorable fuzzy creatures that like to use mechanized war suits)
- Khoban (Physically impressive humanoids who cannot be fully perceived by other species)
- Ndiche (Automatons encoded with the details of the personalities of those that have passed on)
- Oyan (Very similar to humans)
- Vuu (Sentient viruses inhabiting composite bodies of species they have infected in the past)
Each entry has the following character creation rules noted:
- Key Skill
- Secondary Skill
- Defining Talents
There are similar sections on backgrounds and homeworlds, that provide the same modifications and choices of skills and talents as we found in the section on species. Most of the backgrounds are recognizable space opera archetypes, and each of the homeworlds gives a summary of what the world is like, divided between the Orun and Aya worlds (post-scarcity tech versus the worlds surviving without access to it).
After these sections, we are introduced to the baseline data to which we add and subtract to get our derived statistics for skills, wounds, auras, and talents. At this point, characters pick which path to ascendency they are walking, which grants an active and passive ability. The paths are:
It’s also worth noting that all of these have some nuance to them in what the path to enlightenment actually entails. For example, enlightenment in war isn’t all about fighting, it’s about understanding the causes of conflict as well as being able to resolve the conflict.
There are universal and advanced talents listed, for when characters advance. Some of these advanced talents are tied into species, background, homeworld, and paths.
The chapter wraps up with a discussion of gear and the upgrades that you can get on various gear, along with factions and what happens as your reputation advances with different factions. One notable place where these concepts converge is the special gear available to people that have a specific reputation level. There are three tiers of gear associated with factions, and I love some of the signature tier 3 items.
For example, the Merchant Houses can grant access to The Black Chip, a credit chip that can literally meet any price so long as something is for sale. The Ministry can grant access to Guidance, a program that can rewrite personalities. The Ascendency can grant access to a singularity firing weapon. My favorite is the Hand of Glory, which can be loaned out by the Oro crime lords, which is a small bar of intelligent metal that is driven to pick locks and break codes.
A lot is going on in this chapter. When the discussion on factions and reputation starts, we get into things like debt and resources. The baseline statistics being modified are introduced at the end of several sections that denote how they are modified. All of this is simpler than it may appear, but the order in which it is presented leaves you with a lot of questions until you get to the last third or so of the chapter, when you start seeing what is being pulled together.
Chapter Three: Horizon System
Resolution in the game is based on adding your score in an aura to your score in a skill and adding that to 2d10. There is a static result ladder, with difficulty expressed as a bonus or penalty to a roll. In other words, your target number for an uncomplicated success is always 13, but a difficult task might impose a -5 penalty to your roll.
The tiers of resolution determine how many hitches or edges are generated, in addition to failure or success. For example, the lowest tier of failure generates two hitches, and the highest tier of success generates two edges.
Extended tasks are tasks that require more than one success, and there is a separate resolution table for those. Instead of generating hitches or edges, extended tasks can generate different numbers of total successes based on the rolls.
Edges can be spent to allow characters to add to a roll, recover Agbara (a resource pool equal to different auras), reroll dice, remove status effects, or add details into a scene. Hitches can be used to grant adversaries higher defenses, penalize player rolls, remove wounds from the game facilitator’s characters, cancel out edges, apply status effects, or remove equipment.
In addition to being generated with bad rolls, hitches are added to the GM’s pool if a given environment has a higher threat level. I like having descriptive, evocative locations for encounters, and adding in a specific “complication currency” to represent more difficult environments is a great way to mechanically model this.
Agbara represents pools based on the rank that characters have in different auras. These can be spent as ablative buffers before suffering wounds, or to trigger special powers and effects.
Whenever a character is faced with a particularly difficult situation to resolve, they mark “trials” to a specific aura. Once you gain a certain number of trials, they can be spent for advancement. Skills work the same way, except that most skills mark trials when the skill is unsuccessful (although it must be used in a meaningful way for it to count as a trial).
While it doesn’t work for every game system, I like that this particular system uses trials as a means of advancement, as it is thematic to the idea of walking a path to enlightenment. I like the universal skill resolution ladder, as it makes it easier to remember when a result is successful and to what degree when all the modifiers are applied upfront.
I like the resolution system for extended tasks, except for the way that it is framed. Because you can continually keep working on an extended task, the section describing them says that eventually, you will probably succeed with the task. I would have rather there had been examples of why timing might still be important with extended tasks. For example, you need to build an item before an event happens, so it only matters if you can get the extended task done before that event occurs, regardless of how long you could hypothetically take to complete the task.
Chapter Four: Adversaries
This section starts with baseline stats for “general” adversaries at different threat levels, establishing the baseline wounds, Agbara, defense, skill bonus, damage, and special abilities the adversary should have. At different levels of danger, an adversary also grants the GM a number of Hitches to use.
There are about four pages of special abilities listed, from area attacks to swallowing opponents whole, to teleportation. Some opponents may have talents in place of these general creature traits.
After this general section, there are example characters for various factions, as well as various creatures found throughout the galaxy. This section rounds out with victims of the Sopona virus, including Babblers (early-stage infected, who can still be saved), Furies, and Quantum Maelstroms, the final phase of the virus.
I appreciate the simple table establishing baseline stats, and a good list of abilities to assign to an adversary. It makes custom creation much simpler to have adversaries laid out in this manner. The plot hooks included with each of the example creatures are also very welcome both as adventure seeds and as cues for how to include them in the narrative. Much like environments, I like that more dangerous creatures grant the GM more hitches to spend.
Chapter Five: Call to Adventure
This section starts with GM advice about adventure design, presenting a series of questions to ask to set up what the player characters are doing and how a session will progress. This also moves to a discussion on units of time in the game, and the types of scenes a GM might use, including the following:
There is also a section discussing scene formatting that serves as a nice guideline for how a GM can prepare their notes, as well as presenting how the sample adventure is laid out. This involves defining a hook, potential conflict, and available scene edges – built-in advantages that a player character might seize upon.
The sample adventure has the player characters attempting to clear the reputation of someone accused of a crime, which leads to an investigation of local criminals and activists. There are various decision points about where to gather evidence, and what evidence to present, as well as who to adopt as an ally.
This is perhaps as good a time as any to address the assumed course of adventures. I’m always a fan of introductory adventures that show you what an adventure for the game system looks like, and what the assumed style of play looks like. There are parts of the book that make the Djali feel more removed from base concerns, traveling the galaxy to uplift others.
While this is true, to an extent, the real expected cycle of play seems to be to remind the players of their backgrounds, pre-Djali, and make it hard for them to live in that space “above” the concerns of places of their birth. The Djali may fight to make the galaxy a better place, but the galaxy is also fighting to make them more pragmatic and jaded, by tying them to various factions with ulterior motives while doing their work.
I really like this angle, but I also wish it were more explicitly stated in the game masters section. It can be implied from reading about factions, debt, and adventure hooks, but it’s such a strong way to add more texture to this kind of campaign that I wish more time was spent expounding on the implications.
A Higher Light It does a skillful job of integrating the themes of enlightenment and spirituality with the realities of a galaxy that still deals with war, crime, and an unwillingness to move forward together. [social_warfare]
The setting is evocative and exciting. While there are many familiar themes for space opera, like noble houses, crime syndicates, and opposing empires, those themes are carefully grafted into themes of spirituality, growth, and reclamation. To call to mind the franchises with the longest shadows, the setting does a good job of feeling as wide open and frenetic as Star Wars, but with a mission to make the galaxy a better place that nicely dovetails with Star Trek.
An Errant Thought
Many people have many different opinions on what order information should be presented in an RPG, so as always, your personal perspective may differ from mine. That said, there is a lot of material presented, with a lot of mechanical elements (mostly bonuses or the general tiers of abilities) before the core rules are engaged. The character creation summary is good to remind you of what you need to do to make your character, but it feels a little stretched out.
Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
Anyone looking for a space opera setting that plays in familiar territory, while also bringing in a new look and perspective, should really engage with this game. There is a natural excitement and energy in this setting. It does a skillful job of integrating the themes of enlightenment and spirituality with the realities of a galaxy that still deals with war, crime, and an unwillingness to move forward together.
It is also an interesting mechanical twist to see a system where the numbers remain absolute in the resolution chain, and the difficulty level is raising or lowering the ceiling and the floor on the resolution math.
What are some of your other favorite space opera settings that draw more broadly than historically European influence? What are your favorite themes to engage in a space opera game? What baseline do you generally imagine for player characters in a space opera game? We want to hear from you below in the comments!