The folks at Hunters Books recently sent me a review copy of their newest RPG, Outbreak: Deep Space, a sci-fi survival horror game in the vein of movies like Event Horizon and Aliens and video games like Resident Evil. Like their first game, Outbreak: Undead, Outbreak: Deep Space tweaks what you might typically expect from a traditional RPG (insomuch as “traditional” is a useful descriptor, etc.), particularly from a GMing standpoint. Given that GMing is our focus on the Stew, that tends to be something I look for when I do reviews, and Outbreak: Deep Space piqued my interest.

A bit of background

Back in 2010, I reviewed the first release from Hunters Books, Outbreak: Undead, an RPG that looked like a lot of fun but which was wrapped up in a problematic package. Outbreak: Undead is a “zombie simulator” and an avatar RPG — a game where you stat yourself up and see how you and your friends would do in the zombie apocalypse…except that it didn’t actually include rules for character creation.

The creators were great about responding to my review, something which, as a publisher myself, I make it a point not to do because it’s so difficult to do well. And I’m told that the character creation thing has been fixed in later printings.

So what’s changed in four years, the time between that review and this one? Does Outbreak: Deep Space offer as much interesting stuff for GMs as Outbreak: Undead? Let’s dive in and find out.

Quick overview

Outbreak: Deep Space (ODS) is about characters facing down alien horrors under increasingly desperate circumstances in far-flung sci-fi locations. Like Outbreak: Undead, ODS is a sci-fi survival horror simulator in RPG form. It has a moderately crunchy system that relies too much on jargon and abbreviations but which brings some nifty and unique mechanics to the table. The book itself is pretty, but very poorly organized.

Like Torchbearer, Apocalypse World, and Burning Empires, in addition to underlying mechanics common to players and GMs, ODS has explicit mechanics for the GM that aren’t used by the players — structural mechanics, if you will, that bring the simulation element to the foreground.

For example, ODS uses Outbreak Level as a measure of how hard the shit is currently hitting the fan, ranging from 0 (everything is normal) to 4 (a history-making event that alters the world forever). It features a variety of procedural mechanics like Scenario Points, Risk, and Encounter Checks for structuring gameplay, determining the threats that the PCs face, and plugging PC actions and outcomes directly into the narrative structure of an adventure.

On the whole, Outbreak: Deep Space has a lot to offer to fans of sci-fi survival horror who also like the idea of a simulation-driven, highly procedural RPG, and who are willing to put up with its poor organization.

The book itself

It’s purdy: This is a great-looking book. It’s 240 pages, full-color inside and out, and retails for $44.95. That’s a good price for a book with ODS’ high production values.

It has a clean, functional, sci-fi-looking layout that makes good use of color-coded callout boxes and other graphical elements to break things up. On some pages, the layout elements bump up too close to the text on the edges, but that’s a pretty minor complaint.

It’s fairly light on artwork, but where artwork appears — notably in the threats (monsters) and gear sections, as well as the chapter openers — it’s good stuff. Art is subjective, etc., but I like the artwork in ODS a lot.

Words: ODS is well-written. It would have benefited from more proofreading (there are no proofreaders credited). The writing style is clear and dry, which feels about right for a strongly procedural game with a focus on simulation; it reads a bit like an instruction manual.

It’s not great at answering a pretty important question up front, though: What do the characters do? Until I’d spent some time with the book, the best I could come up with was “survival horror-type stuff, in space.” After spending a lot of time with ODS, I’d say “Complete sci-fi-themed missions while facing escalating threats, avoiding combat whenever possible, and trying to survive during an increasingly deadly alien invasion/infestation.”

Organization: The weakest thing about ODS is its organization: It’s terrible. I found myself flipping back and forth much too often to find things while writing this review; in actual play, this would drive me nuts.

For example, Scenario Points are a key mechanic (which I’ll talk about later), and they’re not described in detail until p. 222. Confusingly, they’re called Survival Points in the introduction and index, but Scenario Points in the section dedicated to them. Or take Objectives, another core element of the game. They’re referenced in the Missions section on p. 118, and the Missions section builds on them…but they’re not described until p. 222.

There’s little in the way of cross-referencing, either. For example, a big part of the game for the GM is the Encounter Check (abbreviated as E%). It comes up a lot, but the actual table for making one is buried on p. 217.

There’s an index, which I always appreciate, but no glossary. And ODS cries out for a glossary: Quick, figure out this sentence without one:

Characters will be able to generate 10 Cr per DLv. in (Profession) x DoS in a related check between sessions if they are able to be in situations where they can hire themselves out.

All of those terms are defined elsewhere, but given ODS’ heavy reliance on acronyms and abbreviations, a glossary would be a big help. I’m not wild about all of those abbreviations and acronyms, either, but that’s a matter of personal preference.

Core elements of the game

ODS is a pretty traditional RPG at heart: Characters have stats, abilities, and skills, and most of the time rolls are made for task resolution. Of the subsystems in the game, combat is the most complex and receives the most attention. Characters take damage. There’s a big list of gear. You can raise your stats.

And there’s nothing wrong with that! Most of how ODS works will feel pretty familiar to the average gamer, so I’m going to focus on the different and interesting stuff.

Core mechanics: ODS uses percentile dice for most things. Characters’ stats and modifiers are expressed in percentile terms. This is a straightforward core mechanic that’s easy for new players to get their heads around — everyone understands percentages.

It also uses d5s, which are actually 6-sided dice numbered 1-5 with a special effect in place of the 6. They sell custom dice, but any old d6 works fine; just remember that a 6 is special. I quite like this mechanic for two reasons: one, it uses dice everyone already has, with a simple probability spread; and two, it allows the designers to use the same mechanic — d5 rolls — to mean different things in different situations.

For example, if a check is difficult you might simply ignore the special (6) result on a d5 — it’s a wasted die in your roll. If it’s very difficult, the 6 might count as a mishap, with negative effects. If it’s crazy-nuts difficult, you might fail the roll if any dice come up a 6. That’s a ton of versatility for one simple mechanic, and it’s one of my favorite elements of the game.

The other mechanic I love reminds me a bit of Fate and Marvel Heroic: Descriptors. They’re essentially keywords, and if two elements of the game — a character and the environment, let’s say — share a Descriptor then they can interact with one another.

If your character finds a weird alien gun, and that gun has the Firearm Descriptor, then she can use it if she has a trait that includes the Firearm Descriptor. Or, as the book notes in an excellent example, if you’re sneaking into a building while wearing clothing with the Desert Descriptor and the location doesn’t have the Desert Descriptor, it might count against you because it makes you stand out against your surroundings.

Like the d5s, this is a clever way to introduce meaningful mechanical details without a lot of rules overhead — and it’s easy to extend on your own, as the GM, and easy for players to grok.

Playing yourself: Like Outbreak: Undead, you can play yourself. You create your character using an online survey, noting your stats based on your answers. That’s not something I’ve ever wanted to do in a sci-fi RPG, and the game doesn’t assume you want to do that either: The character creation section mentions it as an option in one spot, as a connection to the first Outbreak RPG, but thereafter assumes you’re creating your character from scratch.

Toys: There’s a huge chapter on gear, which makes sense given the survival horror theme: Your stuff matters. A lot. There’s also a smaller, much more interesting chapter on locations that I really liked.

Like most survival horror media, fighting isn’t always the best option and it’s rarely the safe choice. ODS isn’t a bug hunt, like Starship Troopers: Fighting is a risky prospect, and one that gives the GM many opportunities to make your life worse through the game’s procedural mechanics. A good defensible location can make a big difference, and the Locations section provides lots of options for the PCs to spend their time and resources creating a stronghold. It’s good stuff.

The Opponents chapter is great. It’s full of varied, interesting threats — monsters and aliens, primarily — with fun abilities, covering all of the tropes you’d expect from sci-fi survival horror. I wish it were longer, but then I almost always wish this section were longer in most core books; a supplement full of threats would be welcome.

Currency: ODS gives players a mechanical “currency” called Scenario Points (SP) and GMs a currency called Risk. When the PCs succeed at doing stuff, the party earns SP. When they fail, the GM earns Risk.

ODS uses a lot of jargon (too much, in my opinion), and SP feature in most of it. For example:

  • Every PC has a Paradigm (Crafty, Hunter, etc.), and every Paradigm has a penalty for injury and a penalty for death. If a PC is injured, the group loses SP. If a PC is killed, the group loses a lot of SP.
  • When PCs complete Objectives — basically milestones, along the lines of a D&D 4e Skill Challenge — the party earns SP.
  • When the party completes Missions, which take a variable amount of Time (my least favorite kind of jargon: the kind that uses a word you’re going to use a lot in different contexts, but which means a specific thing in the game), sometimes award SP for completion.

Whenever the PCs do something risky, or when the rules otherwise add Risk as a possible outcome to an action, the GM can earn Risk. As the GM, you have a pool of Risk that grows based on PC actions and shrinks as you apply it to the game. Want to beef up a monster? Spend some Risk to make it tougher. Want the Aehterian Slavemaster to stun a PC? Spend 5 Risk to use that ability.

Risk also comes into play through Encounter Checks. In a nutshell, a session of ODS can be broken down into Encounters. When you’re prepping an adventure, you build a custom Encounter Check table for that adventure. Whenever there’s an Encounter, you roll an Encounter Check to see what resources you have at your disposal. For example, beating the E% value by two degrees of success gives you, the GM, one Standard Opponent (which you figured out in advance depending on the type of threat in this adventure) with 1 Template, and generates 2 Risk per Outbreak Level (the severity of the current crisis). From there, you deploy the threats and proceed accordingly.

Narrative structure: Risk and SP are the heart of the game, and where its nature as a simulation comes to the foreground. If you like games with a formal structure that feature lots of interface points between narrative and mechanics, this will be right up your alley. Both the players and the GM do things that plug into this structure, and it’s an intriguing approach. It’s also one of the things that sets ODS apart from many other games, and which gives it a unique hook for GMs (something I always look for when I write reviews here on the Stew).

Unfortunately, it gets less attention than it needs in the rulebook. A scant 6 pages are devoted to missions; Risk gets just 3, and each page is in a different section of the book; and the GMing section, which covers so much of what makes the game interesting to GMs (and by extension, shapes how it will feel to players), is only 18 pages long. None of those sections are big on examples, either, and they should be: Never mind teaching a novice GM how to run this quite procedural game — these sections aren’t beefy enough for experienced GMs, unless said GM happens to run this style of game often.

An extended example of actual play would be a huge help in presenting the game’s concepts more clearly. Here’s what I think an ODS session might look like, from prep to play:

  1. The GM chooses an infestation — what nastiness the PCs are up against, in broad terms.
  2. The GM decides where the game starts out, and preps some locations.
  3. The GM writes an adventure composed of Encounters — missions and objectives. There are examples of different structures in the book (e.g., branching), as well as a method for doing this randomly.
  4. The GM sets the Outbreak Level and creates a custom Encounter Check table for the adventure.
  5. The players try to resolve objectives and missions. Success gives them SP to spend to increase the odds in their favor, while failure increases the Risk the GM has to throw baddies at them.
  6. Every Encounter has a chance of giving the GM an opportunity to introduce opponents. Combat is deadly and best avoided.
  7. At some point the PCs may want to or have to hole up somewhere, in which case they can spend resources to improve their stronghold.
  8. The Outbreak Level may go up as the adventure progresses.
  9. The PCs succeed or fail at the overall scenario.

I’m not sure I described that very well, which is telling in and of itself: After as long as I’ve spent reading ODS, I should be surer than I am about how it might play. That said, how I think it plays sounds pretty interesting to me. It’s the sort of highly structured experience that seems like it would shine in a one-shot or convention slot.

Tying it all together

I find the simulation thing a poorer fit in ODS than it was in Outbreak: Undead. Outbreak: Undead asks a popular, well-known question that I think the average gamer has likely asked themselves at some point: “How would you and your friends do in a zombie apocalypse?” And after asking that question, it gives you a robust, unique, well-explained toolkit for simulating the answer to that question through play.

All of that is muddier in ODS. “How would your characters do in an alien invasion/infestation scenario?” is a pretty cool question, but less of a cultural touchstone than its counterpart in Outbreak: Undead. And the toolkit ODS provides is both more complex and less intuitive than the toolkit in Outbreak: Undead, a poor combination made worse by its lack of organization.

Which is too bad, because I love some of the concepts and tools provided in ODS. The procedural stuff is intriguing, and I wish it was expanded and better explained in the book. Some of the main mechanics, notably Descriptors and d5s, are clever and seem like they’d make for interesting play. The toys ODS provides, from monsters to locations, are solid.

As I was wrapping up this review, I couldn’t help but think that this is a game which would benefit from a second edition. Tear the manuscript apart, put it back together in an order that makes sense, add copious extended examples (of character creation, of adventure prep, of actual play), add a glossary, and make it clearer what the PCs actually do and why that will be fun, and Outbreak: Deep Space would be an exceptional product. As it is, it’s a mixed bag with many highs and just as many lows.

Should I buy Outbreak: Deep Space?

On the whole, I’d say maybe.

Outbreak: Deep Space has a very specific audience in mind: fans of sci-fi survival horror who like RPGs with a strong simulation element and procedural mechanics for the GM and players.

If you already know you’re part of that audience, you’re set: Buy this book. You’ll have to put up with its poor organization, but the payoff is likely to be worthwhile. Even if you don’t love crunchy systems, this one feels to me like it will become more intuitive over time. ODS is a unique game, and I can’t think of another game — apart from Outbreak: Undead — quite like it.

If you’re not part of that target audience, I don’t think Outbreak: Deep Space is going to make you a convert. Personally, I love sci-fi survival horror and I’m intrigued by games with strong procedural elements, but I’m pretty sure I don’t want to deal with ODS’ level of crunch and poor organization, so it’s a miss for me.

If you’re looking for ideas to apply to other sci-fi, horror, or sci-fi/horror RPGs, it’s not worth picking up for that reason alone. It contains relatively little fluff, and the sections on pacing and structure — likely the most helpful if you’re after GMing tips — are too short to reach their full potential.

Questions welcome

Even at almost 3,000 words, and with several hours of work behind it, I can’t hope to have covered everything you might be curious about here. If you’ve got questions about ODS, I’ll do my best to answer them in the comments. Thanks for reading!