A few years ago, I saw a lot of chatter about a science fiction book series. I had never heard of it before, but I decided that it had been a while since I picked up a good sci-fi book, so I gave it a try. Leviathan Wakes, the first book of The Expanse series, is now one of my favorite novels.
To call The Expanse hard science fiction misses out on a lot of nuance, but it’s hard to put a finger on exactly what The Expanse is. There is action, political maneuvering, mercenary adventures, and noir detective action going on, and that’s before you get to the really weird stuff. If you were to make an RPG of the setting, you would have to cover a lot of ground to capture the feel.
On that note, let’s look at Green Ronin’s The Expanse Roleplaying Game. Based on their AGE System, the same underlying rules that are used for the Dragon Age Roleplaying Game, this one is tackling a completely different genre.
This review is based on the PDF of the RPG, which is 260 pages in length. The book is full color and features a copious amount of artwork. All of the artwork is impressive, but of special note is that the artwork is based on the novel series. My personal preference when it comes to adaptations is to see a wide range of interpretations, so I’m all for this.
There are plenty of half-page images introducing chapters, with many headers and sidebars to break up text into more readable pieces of data. There are also full-page images introducing some of the larger sections, as well as a two-page spread of the solar system. There is a two-page index, two pages for a character sheet, and the Churn Tracker, in addition to the regular material. This is a very attractive book.
Foreword, The Last Flight of the Cassandra, Introduction
The book is introduced by the authors of the novel series, giving a brief summary of the history of the setting, including the fact that it was once the framework of a tabletop RPG campaign. In addition to the foreword, the authors also wrote a short story that is included at the beginning of the book, detailing a day in the life of a freighter crew. Finally, we get a quick primer on the rules used in the system, mainly the 3d6 resolution method used.
Anyone familiar with other AGE System games may pick up on the fact that the third die used to roll checks in the game is called the Drama Die in this iteration, although there is more on that later. While this section has the standard quick pitch explanation of roleplaying that many games have, I was surprised at how much time the introduction spent on explaining group dynamics and making sure that everyone at the table respects one another and gels as a group.
The next section of the book is dubbed the Player’s Section, and this is subdivided into the following chapters:
- Game Basics
- Character Creation
- Character Traits
- Technology and Equipment
- Game Play
- Future History
- The Belt
- The Outers
In this section, we get more information on why the Stunt Die from previous AGE games gets a new name this time around. The Drama Die is used to determine several ancillary story elements whenever a check is made. It can break ties, determine the degree of success, and also determine if other random elements happen when making a check.
Characters in the setting have a resource called Fortune. You can spend Fortune to reduce damage done to your characters (not entirely unlike hit points), but Fortune is also a resource you can spend to change your dice results, although you can only change one die of the three you roll, and changing the Drama Die costs extra.
Ability Tests function in a manner similar to many RPGs. Roll 3d6, add a modifier, see if you match the difficulty number. The Expanse also includes Advanced Tests and Challenge Tests. Advanced Tests have a Success Threshold. Just rolling the target number doesn’t finish the task, but instead, you check the Drama Die against the Threshold. Once the total of the Drama Dice from each successful check match the Threshold, the task is accomplished. This can be used for tasks that might take a while, where the GM only allows a check once in a while, or in a situation where there is a time crunch, to see how long the check takes.
Challenge Tests are similar to Advanced Tests, except each time a character fails an Ability Test, a complication happens in the narrative. This might be a separate situation that has to be mitigated with an unrelated Ability Test, an opponent appearing, or the difficulty of the core task increasing.
There are a number of conditions that can be applied to a character, and a character that takes damage that they can’t mitigate with Fortune can take some of these conditions to further mitigate damage.
In addition to what players may be familiar with regarding terms like narrative time and action time (being out or in initiative order), there are also Interludes. Interludes are essentially downtime, where the GM can let the PCs know how much they can accomplish before they get back to the main action of the campaign.
I really like how the Advanced and Challenge Tests work, because they feel like a more mechanically structured Skill Challenge mechanic that is explained in a logical manner and doesn’t feel too far removed from the narrative. I also like the idea that Fortune does serve a similar function to hit points, but allowing it to be spent for something else reinforces that it’s not equivalent to health or stamina.
Next up is actual character creation. Characters can roll randomly for their stats on a chart, which yields results from -2 to 4, or they can use a standard array or a point buy system, but in this case, the range allowed is only 0 to 3. As you may surmise, these abilities are similar to abilities in other games, but rather than having a score that provides a bonus, the score and the bonus are the same. The abilities in the game are:
Anyone familiar with d20 games may note that the wider array of abilities means that there aren’t as many definitive “must have” combat stats. Accuracy is used to shoot, but perception adds to ranged damage. Fighting makes it easier to hit in melee, but strength adds to damage.
The three origins in the game are Belter, Earther, and Martian. These origins have different charts to use when deriving social class, but the main difference between them depends on whether the characters are operating at higher gravity (which is normal for Earthers) or very low gravity (where Belters excel).
Once a character determines their social class, there are charts that determine their Backgrounds. Backgrounds are what provides ability bonuses, focuses, and talents. After determining your Background, you can generate your Profession, which provides more focuses or talents. While each of these items can be randomly generated, you can also pick from the lists if you have a specific character in mind.
The next step is to determine a Drive. There are twelve predetermined drives given in the book, and they provide a Quality and a Downfall, which are mainly roleplaying guides, and also a choice of talents to add to the others you have gained.
The following steps will also generate an income score. Rather than tracking individual currencies, characters have a wealth score. Succeed on a test, and you buy something, but then your score goes down. Get a temporary bonus on a job, and you get a bonus that you can apply to a single roll. Over time, Income can go up, if that is one of the rewards the GM provides for the adventures the PCs are on.
In this section, we don’t get much of a preview of talents or specializations, but an Ability Focus is essentially a skill, and some of the Focuses indicate that you can’t make an Ability Test to do work related to that Focus without the Focus. There is also a chart that shows what advancements the PCs get when they gain a level. Levels are gained whenever the GM deems that it makes sense to do so.
It feels a little odd that there isn’t a big level by level table summarizing what characters get at each level, just a description of what your choices are when you level up. I’m a big fan of bonuses and focuses coming from Backgrounds and Professions, and I like that the Drive has a little bit of mechanical reinforcement in addition to the roleplaying guides.
The character traits section goes into what Focuses fall under what Ability. It also explains what the various Talents do, and how Specializations work. Talents have a Novice, Expert, and Master tier. They may or may not also have a prerequisite, such as a specific Ability Score. These usually provide special situational bonuses, re-rolls, or exemptions from other existing rules.
Specializations are very similar to Talents, and also have a Novice, Expert, and Master tier, but usually have a broader application.
Technology and Equipment
Technology and Equipment come next. I was a bit surprised to notice that most weapons are very broadly defined (i.e. a pistol style weapon does X damage, etc.). What denotes a big flashy pistol versus a smaller, more concealable one is Item Qualities and Item Flaws. These might provide a bonus to hit, bonuses to intimidation, or it may require the user to spend an action to ready the item, or it may quit working if an Ability Test is failed and a certain number is rolled on the Drama Die.
Given its special and very restricted role in the setting, Power Armor gets a little more detail than regular armors, but it is still basically comprised of various qualities. That said, never, ever make Bobbie Draper mad.
The next section is Game Play, which fleshes out some of the rules touched upon earlier. If you roll doubles on your tests, you can spend the Drama Die on stunts, and there are charts for the following special groups of stunts:
- General Combat
- Membership & Reputation
This seems like a lot, but for the most part, it’s just a matter of reading something that seems applicable to the situation and spending the stunt points on that effect. The worst aspect of this is reading through the entries to see what all of them do. Until you start to remember some of your options, the tables might lead to a bit of option paralysis.
In combat, if you take any damage that you can’t mitigate, your character is taken out of the scene, and given a condition dictated by the character that took them out. If someone is trying to kill you, if you are taken out, you can end up with the dying condition. If you decide you are taken out of the fight early, you can “roll over,” and assign yourself a condition that would be appropriate, and you are no longer part of the encounter. I have to admit, I was a little surprised to see a mechanic that reminded me of Fate in this book, and I like the idea that the real damage isn’t represented by numbers, but by conditions.
This chapter also has a good deal of information on running investigations in the system. In essence, the point is to create a number of clues that lead to a final location. Clues should be found, but Ability Tests can be used to gain additional information, or to skip clues in the chain that leads to the final location of the investigation.
The specific Interlude Activities are also defined in this section. These include requirements and resolutions. For example, in some cases, you just need to spend time in an interlude doing something to do it, and that’s what you “spent” your Interlude on. But in some cases, like building something new, you make a check for each instance you can take the time in your Interlude to work on that item.
I appreciate that the book spends the amount of time that it does on investigations. Not only has that been important to several of the novels, but investigations, in general, are adventure elements that come up a lot in RPGs, and having a guide to what checks should accomplish is welcome. I also like that the chase rules give you a reason to know why one character is slightly faster than another, but I’m a little sad that the game uses standard movement instead of range bands (especially since the next chapter expressly does use range bands for starships).
There are actually several pages in this section dedicated to actual science and the scientific speculations that make the space travel in The Expanse possible. It’s written in an interesting and engaging manner, but strictly speaking, the chapter doesn’t really start in with any game rules until about five pages in.
Since this is more of a hard science fiction setting, there are charts showing the average travel time between planets and the time it takes to send transmissions from various points in the solar system. Ships have qualities just like the equipment in other sections. The hull size of a ship allows it to roll dice to reduce incoming damage, and if any damage gets through, there are conditions that the ship can suffer. Ships can also “roll over” like characters, leaving a fight but voluntarily taking on a condition.
One interesting aspect of combat is that the game simulates how weapons work in the setting. That means that the person targeting the weapons is pointing the computer guidance at someone, but doesn’t roll. There is a difficulty to dodge or shoot down the incoming attack that is rolled by the defender. It makes sense, but it feels odd, and I would like to see this system in action.
Future History, Earth, Mars, The Belt, The Outers
The next chapters detail the history of the setting, laying out how Earth unified under the UN, colonized Mars, stagnated, and how the Belt and the outer planets were reached. It explains the tension between all of these locations, recent events, and the corporate shenanigans that led to a dangerous alien contagion spreading across various locations.
In addition to historical and geographical information on the locations and the various power groups like the OPA, these chapters also have stats for a few of the more famous characters from the novels, detailed in the relevant sections (Avisarila in the general history section, Holden in the section on Earth, Bobbie in the section on Mars, etc.).
Game Master’s Section
This section is comprised of the following chapters:
- Game Mastering
- The Expanse Series
- To Sleep, Perchance to Dream
The Game Mastering section has solid advice on how to run the game, as well as some specific tips on how to use this particular system. There are guides to structuring adventures and combat, and how to determine proper opposition.
This section also has what is called The Churn, a mechanic for tracking ongoing unforeseen complications. The Churn Pool has a list of triggers that cause it to grow, and at various points the GM is advised to add new effects to the ongoing narrative. There are suggestions for different types of encounters, such as challenges, hazards, investigation, or social encounters.
There is also a pretty exhaustive list of GMing styles and player styles detailed in the GM section of the book. The most important aspect of the chapter is probably the Unspoken Rules, a section that details important things like being inclusive, checking in with players to make sure they are comfortable at the game, and making sure that players are feeling accepted.
This is a very extensive chapter, and its good material, but I really wish the Churn was less a set of “mile markers” for introducing things, and more of an active pool that a GM could spend at various times for defined effects. It also feels like the very detailed discussion of GM and Player types is more of a “200 level” game mastery discussion, and might make someone newer to running games feel like they aren’t doing it right if they can’t identify and act on all of those defined types. I think the final section does a good job stressing the importance of everyone’s comfort at the table, but I wish there had been some discussion of active safety tools during the game session.
Threats include not just adversaries like thugs or corporate experiments gone wrong, but also hazards like radiation, and how they might play out in an encounter. Rewards include when to increase Income bonuses and when to give temporary boosts, but also honorifics, memberships, and relationship bonds.
Honorifics might provide different bonuses depending on what the character is known for—they might help boost an ally, or give them an edge if their opponent knows who they are and what they are good at. Memberships are ranked, and provide bonuses when dealing with other members of that organization. Relationship bonds are also ranked, and provide bonus stunt points any time the object of the Relationship Bond is affected by a check.
I would have to see how often it comes up in a regular game, but I do like the idea of the relationship bond making it easier to do something extra when your good friend/significant other is part of the situation.
The Expanse Series
The final section before the sample adventure details different styles of campaigns that you might play. The steps presented include finding a theme for the game, determining where and when the series is set, then finding what the actual series will be. Examples include Freelancers, Military, Political, and Rebellion, and also discusses how much you may want to include canon information in the game.
I like the sample campaign series that are presented. Sometimes in a licensed game, it can be easy to be stuck in a rut, trying to determine how to do the same thing the main protagonists are doing, but in a different way. In this case, there is a wide range of ideas inspired by, but not identical to, the paths taken by the main characters of the novels. It probably helps that the novels have a main crew as well as ancillary characters to weave criminal investigations, politics, diplomacy, and military action in around the main plot.
To Sleep, Perchance to Dream
Starting adventures in games are a great way to see how the developers intended the game to work. Obviously these should feel appropriate for the setting, but in this case, I am really impressed with how much this feels like something I would expect from The Expanse, without touching too much on the main storyline from the books.
You have the chance to interact with an important character from the books, but only in a more peripheral manner. Beyond that, the characters get hired to investigate something that leads them to corporate impropriety and a dangerously overindulgent personal goal, and its probably one of the better starting adventures I can remember in a core rulebook.
Yam Seng Not only is it a solid game for presenting The Expanse, but it is a good ruleset for hard sci-fi games in general.
This rulebook adds some amazingly versatile tools to the overall AGE System framework. The versatility of Ability Tests gives the game the mechanical impact to make action scenes other than combat meaningful, and the investigation rules do a great job of giving purpose to Ability Tests without letting the PCs hit a dead end. The way Fortune works, and the interaction with the combat system conditions, feels like a great trade-off between the grittier feel of the setting and the needs of the game’s ongoing shared narrative.
I wish The Churn had been a little bit more of a dynamic tool for the GM. I’m not sure that the time spent on the various GM and Player types was the most practical for newer GMs. I wish the book had spent a little more time on active table safety as well as discussing safety in the broader context of the campaign.
Recommended — If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
I think this is my favorite iteration of the AGE System rules. There are so many useful tools, and enough bits to make a game interesting without adding in bells and whistles like powers or magic. If you like the setting, and you don’t mind your narrative elements having some mechanical impact, you should enjoy this game. Not only is it a solid game for presenting The Expanse, but it is a good ruleset for hard sci-fi games in general.
What are your favorite sci-fi RPGs? If you like hard science fiction, what can a game do to express that successfully at the table? We want to hear from you, so please comment below!