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Mindjammer: The Roleplaying Game

This review originally appeared on rpg.net, Sept. 2014 and was reprinted in the September/October 2018 issue.

Editor’s Note: Since this review was first written, Modiphius has released a version of Mindjammer for Mongoose Traveller.

Mindjammer: The Roleplaying Game. Sarah Newton.
Modiphius Entertainment https://www.modiphius.com
500pp., PDF or (unspecified) print
US$42.99/UKú33.16 (Print/PDF bundle from Modiphius)
US$26.99/UKú20.82 (PDF only from DriveThruRPG)

Every so often there comes a SFRPG that breaks the mould of copying a license or emulating Traveller. Mindjammer is one of those SFRPGs that straddles both of these worlds by creating a wonderful toolkit for modern Science Fiction gaming, yet, provides an interesting backdrop for adventures. It is a mammoth toolkit like Traveller5; it aspires to be the first and last word in FATE roleplaying, just as Traveller5 does for 2D6 mechanics. However, it begs the obvious question: does the already tiny SFRPG market need another toolkit?

I am happy to report this book changed the way that I look at SFRPGs. For there is a proliferation of settings, but really few games are trying to break new ground and incorporate what is truly new – “out there” – short form for the frontier edges of human knowledge. Both in terms of developments in Science and improvements in Fiction. Ms Newton has combined this with a great set of easy-to-follow rules that can be translated into most other games and created the book that I wish that Traveller5 could have been had it been more organized.

And, I say that as long time Traveller grognard – Traveller5 was an abysmal disappointment, yet, it was the reinstatement of the Classic Traveller formulae. Mongoose, who has been tweaking the Classic Traveller formulae, has run against the walls of Traveller being grounded in the so-called Age of Sail and Golden Age of Science Fiction. And, as great as those novels (and films derived from them are great) – Science Fiction has come a long way since 1977. And, the Grand Old Game/Dame (Traveller) in its Traveller5 incarnation, like all prima donnas, ought to have been a diva, but ended up as an obese opera singer, leaving the field for younger and more agile competitors. Mongoose Traveller has done much in bringing the excitement back to Traveller but is limited by the grounded settings, and the OGL severely limits what can be published. Thus, it is here that Mindjammer comes in to forge a new path.

As the subtitle suggests, it takes SFRPGs to the Transhuman frontier, yet, retains lots of the crunchy parts of previous eras of Science Fiction. It can be easily adapted from Space Opera to Hard SF with handwavium given to certain concepts that we do not fully understand yet. While I am not completely comfortable with Transhumanism, I do recognize that it asks vital questions of our time, and gaming is one way to explore those questions before one can tackle them on a societal basis. Mindjammer does this in a friendly and approachable matter. For the milieu that Newton has managed to create with Commonality Space is very much the “European Union in Space” (as contrasted with Traveller’s “Yanks in Space”), yet at the same time, it retains some of the rugged individualism of the Anglo-American traditions of a small band of heroes rising above the call of duty to change the galaxy. Hence, one of the biggest driving conflicts in this milieu is cultural conflict. That said, there are a number smaller conflicts that drive the system forward, including an adversary that has almost a Warhammer-esque drive toward racial purity and cultural homogeneity. The Commonality is a celebration of diversity in all its forms – and this book makes ample use of uplifts (called xenomorphs), synthetics (organic or mechanical forms of life), and the multitude of human forms (either in the appearance of a different culture or radical alteration of the human genome) not to mention the discovery alien life (flora, fungi, fauna and intelligent/sophont) that now populate the stars. With the basic premise that as the human race moves to the stars, we adapt ourselves to life “out there” and “out there” adapts and changes the human condition, Mindjammer shows humanity as constantly changing, just as individuals are – yet, the essentials stay the same.

The rules are powered by the FATE Core rules system. It uses dice for resolving randomized events, in this case 4dF, or FUDGE dice. You can use 4d6 and translate the numbers over, or just directly use 2d6 as d6-d6. The rules work just as easily with either, or even both, but FUDGE dice give results between -4 and +4, while d6-d6 give results between -5 and +5, changing the dynamic of your game. What is nice about FATE is the whole process of creating your character. There’s no dice rolling here, just choosing from a list of skills and extras etc., as well as race, species and physical description. And the rules are fairly straightforward and allow you to do many things. The emphasis here is on narrativist roleplaying, rather than roll playing. And, FATE does a great job conveying that – but so could most other systems, for it is not the rules that make the game, but the players (and similarly the adventure is created by the Referee/Gamemaster). However, how the rules are laid out may either facilitate or hinder the imagination. These days, I am strictly narrativist as opposed to random, in my style of play. I would be happy to run a game in which no dice are ever rolled and characters merely took the role to heart. And FATE is very much conducive to building a crunchy bunch of statistics that can help the Gamemaster realistically describe a fantastical situation without getting bogged down in details. Gearheads, however, are likely to not like this game, as a result. Ms Newton provides lots of examples of how the rules may be applied, and because this is essentially a toolkit, Gamemasters and Players take what they need. However, it is not Old School where one or two lines of stats are sufficient to run with the character – and indeed that is where Traveller is superior. (So my quest goes on for a simple system that also has narrative appeal. Thus, far, I am fairly resigned that BRP does it best.)

The universe setting is believable. It is both familiar and alien at the same time; it is not grounded in our time (and indeed makes scarce reference to 20th or 21st century events) but in the Far, Far Future. With this present era being so imaginably distant because when Humanity left the Earth, a whole new era was created and then there was the inevitable crash and rebirth. As the great wheel of history turns, Earth’s destiny is insignificant compared to the countless worlds “out there”. There is a natural frontier and Core worlds, worlds containing Lost Civilizations just waiting to be recontacted, and evil Empires, wilderness worlds and such strange things, my dear Horatio, that you would scarcely believe.

And with FATE, one can do real or fake worlds and it blows out of the water the notion of a habitable zone, as the recent discoveries of exoplanets are uncovering – most of the seminal works on planet building in RPGs have been bad or old science.

The writing throughout is vibrant, pure, amusing and laconic. The artwork is phenomenal and while ships are a little on the bleh side, supplements can quickly correct that – but even with the ‘bleh’ ships, they were smart enough to contain deckplans for boarding actions. A job very well done. There is ample purple prose to break up the text, and it is like reading the segue into a novel which Ms Newton has indeed penned for this setting. So what is wrong with this book? Not much, save that it is thus far one mammoth tome of information without any quick start rules. And, the indexing can be improved upon. But these are nitpicks. It really boils down to what you want in a SFRPG: do you want to play a license and forever be at the mercy of someone else’s imagination – or do you want to create your own universe of shared meanings? If you want to bring a universe up to speed with the latest in SF, then this most certainly is your game. Even if you do not like FATE, there is enough here to power a dozen other systems, but you will have to wade through lots of rules. It is not so much that one has to find gems in the rough – this book is venerable dragon’s treasure trove of ideas and concepts just waiting to be plucked out. But, even if you do not play FATE, this book is bound to set the gold standard for the creation of new SFRPGs. This book was a surprise, and I did not originally plan on reviewing the game, but, instead the novel (which eventually, I will review). Sarah Newton, with World War Cthulhu: the Darkest Hour and Chronicles of a Future Earth, is certainly a writer that I want to see more of. She has managed to capture the grit of RPGs and transform them into beautiful settings. I cannot wait for your future offerings. Thank you for a job well done!