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Cepheus Deluxe

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2022 issue.

Cepheus Deluxe. Omer Golan-Joel, Richard Hazlewood, Josh Peters, Robert L. S. Weaver
Stellagama Publishing https://www.stellagamapublishing.com
235pp, Hardbound, Softcover, and/or PDF
US$9.99(P)16.99(S+P)20.99(H+P)/UKú7.38(P)12.55(S+P)15.51(H+P)

Cepheus Deluxe is an expanded version of Cepheus Light, which was itself a condensed version of Cepheus Engine. That might sound like redoing what was previously undone, but the end result is different from Cepheus Engine, somewhat different from Cepheus Light, and more than a bit different from Traveller-like games.

Cepheus Engine, written by Jason “Flynn” Kemp (see the review by Jeff Zeitlin in Freelance Traveller #079, January/February 2017) is a 2D6 RPG rules system which took advantage of the Traveller System Reference Document to build a Traveller-like game, borrowing basic elements like the careers and the general mechanics. It can be seen as a variant of the Classic Traveller rules, minus the setting. Cepheus Light, (re)written by Omer Golan-Joel and Josh Peters (see the review by Steve Attwood in Freelance Traveler #093, May/June 2019) is a re-interpreted version of Cepheus Engine which took the core components and streamlined them (for example, cutting down the number of careers from 24 to 12, and consolidating skills), taking full advantage of Open Game rules. Along several editions and reprintings, the number of pages of Cepheus Light has gone consistently down, apparently mostly by dropping art.

Cepheus Deluxe, which credits the Cepheus Light authors and also Richard Hazlewood and Robert L.S. Weaver, is a reboot of Cepheus Light, which allegedly expands it (but not really) and changes a number of (crucial) elements to create a less-Traveller-like game (which might be good or bad depending on taste). It offers far more pages but, amazingly, less of some of the important content.

Let’s start with the changes. Character creation (still limited to the 12 careers of Cepheus Light) has been completely changed and made less random. Characteristics are not rolled, but simply assigned values from the list 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 (which I found a bit silly and will quickly change to “assign 45 points as you wish, subject to my approval”). Gone are the familiar throws for qualification, survival, promotion, and reenlistment, and even the 1D6 throws on the skill tables to see which skill your character receives. Characters merely advance through as many periods of a given career as the players wish, freely picking skills from tables (which have hence lost all meaning as such). Those are limited to three instead of the classical four per career: Service, Specialist, and Advanced Education; Personal Development, which often included boosts to characteristics (attributes), has disappeared. The random aspect of character generation is replaced with 2D6 tables of career events, which sometimes lead to 2D6 rolls on a common table of life events, and sometimes lead to rolls on an injury table. I created a scout who quickly ended in prison as a consequence of a life event, leading to a special term with its own table (which resulted in a daring escape and a forced change to the rogue career…). Overall, the system seems to be apt at creating more detailed life histories out of a few rolls, and the player has far more control on the skills the character ends up with. But I am not sure that the event tables have been thoroughly playtested. For instance, any non-criminal character without the Admin skill has a probability of 0.81% of landing in prison each term, which is less than one percent but still a bit high. That means that non-criminal, Admin-free characters aiming for 5 periods of service will end in prison 4% of the time (one in 25!). Not what one expects in an advanced interstellar society. Note to players: Get Admin, fast.

The list of skills has been further consolidated and feels somewhat constrained. For example, Repair subsumes Electronics and Mechanics, and there is a single skill for “Science”. Another major change is that characters now have Traits, which mimic the Advantages of other games such as GURPS or Savage Worlds. Most of those work by allowing to “roll with advantage” for a given skill, i.e., throw 3D6 instead of 2D6 and pick up the best two dice. Others are used to fix problems, for instance a biologist is a character with Science 3 and the trait Scientist (Life Sciences), which allows to throw with advantage for tasks involving life sciences, but not other sciences.

Combat is almost unchanged from Cepheus Light, but that was already different from Cepheus Engine or more Traveller-like 2D6 games. A character gets two actions per turn, without distinction among minor and major ones. Importantly, damage is not applied to the physical attributes (strenght, dexterity, endurance), neither during nor after combat. Rather, the character has separate stats, called “Stamina” and “Lifeblood”, to keep track of damage. Those are derived exclusively from endurance and the Athletics skill, which is hugely important in this game as a result. Add endurance plus the level in Athletics to obtain Stamina, and double that to obtain Lifeblood. Damage is first subtracted from Stamina, and then from Lifeblood when the first reaches zero. Everything that does not exhaust Stamina is a scratch, everything which does not reach half the level of Lifeblood is a minor wound (gone next day), and everything else is a major wound (requiring the ship’s medbay), requiring an endurance roll to avoid falling unconscious, and ending with the possibility of death when Lifeblood drops to zero (resuscitation is feasible at a hospital). I predict that almost every PC in this game is going to have several levels of Athletics. Also, there are a couple of traits (“Hardy” and “Hard to Kill”) which increase Stamina and Lifeblood, and I predict those will be hugely popular with players.

There are other, more subtle changes, not all of them good. Reflec armor is gone: all armor detracts from slugthrowers’ and energy weapons’ damage alike, which is a huge eye-raiser. The distinction between combat and battle armor has disappeared. And “blasters”, those least Travelleresque of all weapons, are listed as standard sidearms (they were already in Cepheus Light). To me, all those changes make the game feel less and less like Traveller, and the unsuspecting referee might find him- or herself unexpectedly refereeing Star Wars. Let Psionics be with you!

Other changes are cosmetic but do contribute to the “not Traveller” feeling. Difficulty levels (Average, Difficult, etc.) are named once, but the book uses target numbers (8+, 10+) throughout. Weapon ranges are decimal (in meters) rather than Personal, Close, … Distant, etc., but no effort has been made to use the added freedom to increase realism (I still cannot get my head around a stone-age bow having a much longer range than a pulse rifle). Pseudohex UPPs and UWPs are completely optional. All in all, a newbie starting with Cepheus Deluxe might end up playing something only vaguely Traveller-like. Again, whether that is good or bad is a matter of taste, but if you are picking up Cepheus Deluxe for a Traveller group, you need to be aware of that.

I had several problems with the book itself (I am reviewing the printed version). First, there are more typos than one would expect in a refined “Deluxe” game, ranging from odd fonts for isolated words to misplaced half-sentences. Seems that the printing was somewhat rushed and could have done with some triple-checking. Worst, I spotted a number of serious errors. The one that bothered me most is in the Knockdown rules. According to the Cepheus Light rules, if a character receives more points of damage in a single round (before subtractions due to armor) than the maximum of strength, dexterity, and endurance, he or she is knocked down and must spend an action to stand up or otherwise get back in the game. Characters spend a lot of time on the floor in this game! The Cepheus Deluxe rules have changed that to be “more damage than double the dexterity of the character” [emphasis mine –caf], maybe to avoid PCs hugging the floor so often (it can feel a bit ridiculous at times). But it is unclear whether this is just a mistake, because the combat example that follows (which is new and not a carryover from Cepheus Light) clearly uses dexterity and not double dexterity as a threshold.

There are other mistakes, too many for my taste. For instance, the description of fast and slow drugs (“Fast Forward” and “Slow Motion”) is wrong: they are identical. For fast forward drugs, “a subjective day to the user is 2 months of real time”. For slow motion drugs, “a subjective hour to the user is 60 hours of real time”. This kind of lack of attention to detail is pervasive through the book, and the authors would be well-advised to employ paid readers in the future. For instance, a trait called Rally confers an advantage on “Morale tests”, but there are no such tests anywhere in the rules (or they are so hidden that I could not find them). If you are picking up this book to use in a game, be advised that you do need to read it thoroughly first to spot the problems in advance, or else be left making fixes in the middle of your session.

Other problems are not so much mistakes as simply, with apologies, not-so-well-thought rules. For instance, a number of weapons do only stun damage. But this is done by subtracting points from Stamina, so that the character is incapacitated if Stamina reaches zero. But what if Stamina is already reduced by a “regular” hit? Do we need to keep track of “regular Stamina” and “Stun Stamina”? I sure hope not! But if not, suppose a character with original Stamina 10 only has a point of it left. If he is hit by a rifle shot which makes 10 further points of damage, he will not fall unconscious; in fact, it will just be a minor wound. But if he is grazed by a stun weapon and receives just 1 point of stun damage, he will be completely incapacitated. This makes little sense in my book.

Let us turn to the additions. The fourth edition of Cepheus Light was 109 pages long. Cepheus Deluxe is 229 pages long. So what is there to justify switching over? The Traits (advantages) list takes 8 pages, which could have been replaced with “pick up a skill that you throw for with advantage.” But other than that, there is no big addition in Cepheus Deluxe compared to Cepheus Light. Quite simply, the text has been lengthened with more detailed (and sometimes simply more wordy) descriptions. Sometimes those are good, sometimes they feel like padding. For example, the lists of skills takes three pages instead of one. Psionics (which I personally do not care for in a SciFi setting) has been explained in more detail with no real additions and moved to the main text (it used to be in an appendix in Cepheus Light). And so on. Some of the overall space is just taken up by empty half-pages before subsections.

All this might explain how, amazingly, even though the text is 120 pages longer, some things have been actually been cut down. Where Cepheus Light had many examples of character creation and personal combat, Cepheus Deluxe provides only one of each. In my opinion, cutting down on the examples must count as the worst decision in the writing of this book. And there is also less art (see below).

Last, let us look at the more formal aspects of the book. Here are some of the biggest letdowns of the text. Cepheus Light had a lot of art. To put it bluntly, illustrations were of two kinds: useful and useless. “Useful” illustrations were pictures of actual starships from the game, or a very nice picture of the typical slugthrowers. “Useless” illustrations were generic SciFi pictures, unrelated to the game or the text, and sometimes quite confusing. All the useful pictures are gone from Cepheus Deluxe (I repeat: all), and one is left with the useless ones only. To be fair, for reasons unknown, the successive editions of Cepheus Light had been cutting down on the useful art already. And there is a lot of padding there: one-column pictures are often centered across two columns, leaving empty space on both sides, instead of spending a bit of time and energy in proper formatting.

Another letdown is the table of contents, which is, I am afraid, as useless as the art. It lists only the big sections and not the subsections, so that one can in practice find very little (I defy the reader to find the table of combat stats for Armor types without knowing that it is under Equipment and not under Combat). This has been cut down from three columns in Cepheus Light to just one. At first, I thought this would be compensated by the addition of a full eight pages of alphabetical index. Unfortunately, the latter is rather useless. First, an indentation mistake makes it almost unreadable, with “captain” following “Actions, crew” at the same level without a visual aid to see that it is actually “Actions, captain”. Second, very little care has been put into this index. Many natural entries are missing (no entry for “Stun”, for example). And others are very poorly thought: for instance, all optional rules are entered under “Optional Rule: name” instead of under “Name (Optional Rule)”, so that you do not find the rules from improving characteristics under “I” but under “O”. (FT Editor’s note: They should be under “C”: “Characteristics, Improving (Optional Rule)”)

Cepheus Engine/Light/Deluxe is generally a good reference book for a rules-light, setting-agnostic, Traveller-like game. If you have not encountered any of the Cepheus incarnations before, you can pick up Cepheus Deluxe, especially since the PDF can be had relatively cheap at DTRPG if you wait for the “Deal of the Day” or other discounts. But if you already have Cepheus Light, you might want to give this one a pass until the authors produce the second edition and fix the typos and mistakes (and hopefully do something about the art).

On the Other Hand, the art-free System Reference Document can be downloaded from DTRPG, and nothing prevents you from using it to fix the more blatant problems in a way you like and using it as your own homebrew reference system. I will most likely be doing exactly that.