Editor’s Note: This review originally appeared on RPG.Net in December 2012, and is reprinted here and in the March 2013 issue of Freelance Traveller with the author’s permission.
Orbital. Paul Elliott.
Zozer Games. http://zozer.weebly.com.
US$15.99 PDF/US$22.29 Softcover
First and foremost, allow me to thank Paul Elliott of Zozer Games for gifting me a copy of this PDF for the purposes of this review.
This is the game that Hard SF players of Traveller have been waiting for (at least, until my Traveller Now appears…). It takes the time scale back to a simpler time, set in the immediate afterglow of US President Bush’s Space Exploration Initiative (SEI) – in which, this Alternate Traveller Universe (ATU) postulates gets passed and expanded upon. Although this is an ATU, it can be played with any form of Traveller with sufficient modification by simply messing about with the timey-wimey stuff and reversing the polarity of the neutron flow (ok, wrong universe but right idea…)
This is a labour of love and a hallmark in gaming, for all too often, Hard SF RPGs make compromises that cause them to veer toward a softer side. Not so here; this is diamond-hard SF which might cause some people to feel squeamish that lasers are used for cutting asteroids to find ore samples, not handheld toys that go: “chtow, chtow…”. That said, Zozer Games has created a universe rife and pregnant with conflict under the rubric of a Cold War existing between a somewhat unified Earth government and the extra-planetary colonies (which have managed to wrest significant independence from this ball of dirt). Nor is the game ultimately simulationist; it encourages a wide variety of role playing characters that encourages the imagination just to think of the world, as it could be had we put our resources in space exploration rather than the myriad of conflicts on Earth. That said, it is not a happy utopian vision, but one forged from grit and struggle of new frontiers being thrust open guided by technological ingenuity and human creativity where many of the troubles and ills have come with us – just as they have in the past. Notwithstanding, there is a great deal of hope contained within, as new communities spring up, trying new ways of doing things and ultimately transforming the human condition. Thus, avoiding the darkness of cyberpunk or dissolving of the human into the machine-human nexus of transhumanism. This is a game for people who believe it is the human destiny to live, work, and procreate “out there” – and it is the outward urge that will take us there.
The rules are simple enough, as they borrow heavily from the Mongoose Traveller rulebook but tweaking those ideas to better suit a lower Technological Level (TL). It does so, without sacrificing any simplicity that Mongoose (and to a lesser extent Classic Traveller) had achieved, mainly by subtracting the unnecessary bits. So, it makes the game more rules-light and rules-fast without sacrificing any of the chrome and intrinsic sense of wonder that is the hallmark of good SF writing.
Extensive background is provided in setting up the background or the canvas of the Alternative Traveller Universe by outlining the setup of the universe of two neighboring powers – Earth and Luna, challenging each other for supremacy for the resources of the Solar System. Sandwiched in between are organizations which then create the basis for employment in this conflict-ridden Solar System. Players accustomed to hit the jump button and move to the next adventure (a.k.a. Star Trek mode of play) will certainly find this setting slower and less dramatic, but it is very Traveller and the pushing back of Traveller to its roots of a small ship universe and to the glory days of the Space Age might seem alien to younger players but it is increasingly supported by a vast literature of Hard SF – the secret is weaving together the party to think in these terms. Thus, it is hoped that a player’s handbook of sorts or more purple prose will go into future supplements directed toward players living the frontier and banishing the idea of speed and concentrate on the sense of wonder.
Next up, we have the modifications to the standard Mongoose character generation sequence. Many things can be directly ported over from the main rulebook (thus, it is necessary to own one copy of those rules) albeit with the suggested modifications to better suit the back story of Orbital. Furthermore, there is nice little table which converts standard Hard SF careers into their Traveller equivalent thus reducing enormous amounts of redundancy while still preserving the hard edge. Similarly, new careers are established that better mesh with the milieu. What I found was lacking is the comprehensive way of knitting the party together for the background. In standard Traveller, retirement from one of the main branches of the military or paramilitary or deciding to strike it and go alone from a larger corporate entity provides the glue for binding the party together where individuals of the same persuasion through circumstance find themselves in a common lot. It is not clear, how Orbital’s background is conducive to this form of play. Rather, one is left with the impression that players are trouble-shooters or still employed by their parent organizations – both completely valid options in standard Traveller, but in Orbital, it would seem that one is defaulted into choosing these options in the chargen. Perhaps, because the literal playing space is smaller – options are hence smaller.
Spacecraft design comes up next. Now, there is a whole subset of Traveller players affectionately known as gearheads who like nothing more than using spreadsheets and design stuff. And, this chapter is for them. For me, it merely has to make sense that the players have it or have a predefined equipment locker is more important than building stuff. That said, this chapter is excellently written and make construction a snap. Related is the next chapter on actually operating a spacecraft. Standard Traveller makes running a starship as easy as running a small boat; however, in a Hard SF milieu, things are a little more complex. Again this chapter is very well written to give the sense of the dangers and encounters that a solitary crew will face in the real world. Again, it tacks on preferences and options to the standard Traveller paradigm tweaking it to fit the campaign model in minimalist but exceedingly useful way.
Hardware builds upon Zozer Game’s earlier supplement on the Vacc Suit and provides an extensive equipment list. Thus, we get rovers, computers, orbital vehicles, launch vehicles, deep space vehicles and orbital facilities. Where this area is somewhat poor is the everyday things but again one can refer to standard Traveller for that – a rope is a rope and a 4m pole is a 4m pole; it does not matter what Technological Level these basics are found in – just the materials change. Also, the ubiquity of computing is covered through the use of comms – kudos to Zozer for spelling out things like today’s smart phone are comms – why bother trying to predict the future – just let the technology follow itself and focus upon technology as a tool. Something, standard Traveller has somewhat lost its way through numerous “catalogues” of stuff for the picking. So, taking down a few gradients in the technological curve really reinforces what is needed, as opposed to what is wanted. And, given that space on spacecraft is limited – one can only carry the bare necessities.
Next up is a fascinating and enthralling depiction of life in the high frontier. Replete with maps and wonderful descriptions that bring the out what could be considered bland back into an area of excitement. The author in the introduction cites Outland (film with Sean Connery) as a major source of inspiration – clearly this stimulation and inspiration has rubbed off and created a superb description which nicely dovetails into the rules mechanic entitled “Working in Space”. For these two chapters are about creating the right ambiance for Orbital – standard Traveller can easily borrow these rules and call them as their own. Frequently, the spectacular masks over the speculative of actual life in Traveller, and once again, I am impressed by the detail and yet ease. The next chapter, entitled “Worlds”, outlines the planets and worldlets of the Solar System of Orbital. This, together with the history outlined in the first two chapters completes the tapestry with the longitudinal thread for the milieu completing the vertical thread – thus combining the temporal dimension with the actual spatial aspects. If there is one criticism, it is the density of said information; more effort could be made in spreading some of the information in preceding chapters. I also liked how the earlier supplement of Outpost Mars is faultlessly integrated the chapter on Mars, which does pay homage to LGM but in a purely scientific way, which ties in nicely to the success of SETI in finding something out there… I guess, that, there needed to be some discussion of aliens but I still do feel uncomfortable with it. However, it is written in such a way that it would make Carl Sagan or Arthur C. Clarke proud. We are treated to aliens as the ultimate enigma, as neither they (well, if I would reveal more, I would have to kill you) nor us in our Solar System have a way of reaching each other… So much as I found the inclusion of these to pander to a softer audience, it is important to have enigmas – and if aliens have to be one of them – so be it. For me, the Solar System is rife with enough mystery there is no need to add aliens to the equation… humans are quite capable of doing things awry that they do not need McGuffins like aliens to mix up the pot.
Lastly, are the resources which are fictional and factual inspirations for the milieu. I would have liked more novels and I was surprised by the non-inclusion of Star*Cops or Outcasts (albeit the latter would require some reworking to account for the fact that only Earth has a breathable atmosphere). Nicely included is an Appendix which has all the acronyms used in the book and a wonderfully comprehensive and detailed index. As this PDF is a prelude to a printed book, smart bookmarks or indexing is not done which is fine but just annoying for this review that has had to spend many hours toggling between screens to write this review. However, it makes me eager for the hard copy even more when it does arrive. Zozer games has done a wonderful job in building a believable and wonderfully described Traveller universe amply illustrated with art that sets the right mood for a Hard SF game. Hoping that the print edition can retain the colour prints, as they really give a sense of a time gone by, when space was an exciting place whether it was last moonwalk or flyby of Voyager to the Outer Planets not merely the routine of different experiments on the International Space Station which seem to dominate the headlines today. More art is always appreciated by this author but considering the strength of the writing, it is ample.
Certainly, anyone wanting to inject more realism into their Traveller game would be wise to pick this volume up. And, those like me, who dream of the stars not as just destination points but fully realized places replete with cultures and different ways of doing things yet grounded in the sensibilities that these new worlds will carry the problems of the old into them, will certainly welcome the addition of this book into their Traveller collection. Those wanting to dream about the easy life in the Stars should go back to playing Star Wars/Star Trek versions of Traveller. I hope Zozer Games will return to this milieu, and create more supplements and adventures for it – and thus hopefully inspire the Grand Old Game itself (especially in its Mongoose 2300AD incarnation). For my appetite is whetted and I am wanting more. Keep up the excellent work!