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These Stars Are Ours

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2017 issue.

These Stars Are Ours!. Omer Golan-Joel, Richard Hazlewood, Josh Peters.
Stellagama Publishing http://facebook.com/StellagamaPublishing
207pp., Hardbound, softcover, or PDF

Cepheus Engine isn’t yet a year old and already has much exciting material being published for it. However, in dropping the direct Traveller connection for Open Game Content, it also means that the Third Imperium is no longer a setting that publishers can support. That hasn’t meant, however, that Cepheus Engine hasn’t got places to go, worlds to visit and backgrounds to provide a wealth of adventure. Gypsy Knights Games immediately converted their Clement Sector over to the Engine and Zozer revised their near future solar system setting to bring us Orbital 2100. Both of these are very different in location, time and feel, but both give plenty of potential for travellers of all kinds looking for excitement, fame and wealth.

These Stars Are Ours!, however, is the first setting built for Cepheus Engine from the start and comes from Stellagama in hardbound, softcover, and PDF. I’m reviewing the hardcover version which looks terrific (and smells great too!) although a couple of comparison points with the PDF are noted. For those who don’t recognize the publisher, they’ve also produced The Space Patrol and From the Ashes for Cepheus Engine as well as support material for the Stars Without Number role playing game.

For your money you get a 204-page book that covers the usual ground you might expect in such a setting book: history and politics, aliens, careers, starships and a dozen patrons to kickstart adventures. There’s an index which has some glitches in it and would benefit from a hanging indent but is useful nonetheless. An appendix lists books, films and videos that have provided inspiration. The cover is an attractive Ian Stead illustration of a Reticulan saucer and a Terran military transport above a planet. Internally, the illustrations are all greyscale in the hardcover but many are colour in the PDF.

TSAO, as it styles itself, is set in 2260AD so it joins the likes of Outer Veil, Cthonian Stars, 2300AD, Hyperlite and Clement Sector in being nearish future rather than far future. The first of those, the sharp-eyed reader may spot, is a previous setting from Golan-Joel and Hazlewood published by Spica back in 2011 which has similarities in providing space with ‘edges’ to explore and a real opportunity for PCs to make a difference. TSAO describes itself as a “space-opera setting for the Cepheus Engine Core Rules… two years after the Terrans took Keid and forced the Reticulan Empire to capitulate.” The Reticulans being the alien Greys (or sometimes green as a result of life extension treatments) of science fiction so their ships as flying saucers are entirely appropriate. They have subjugated Terra for more than a century but are now on the defensive since a revolution and successful liberation has left Terra in the ascendance against the odds. Yes, you could read the Reticulans as short Vilani females who emphasise contemplation and logic. Or perhaps given their looks and their relationship to the Precursors, Vilani/Droyne. Many other aliens exist and give additional complexity to politics, personal interactions and even role playing as players are encouraged to use them just as much as humans. The Cicek – reptilian and could be read as a cross between Vargr and Aslan, Zhuzzh – nomadic insectoids and the religious Ssesslessians – think snakes! Notes are provided on role-playing these as characters which is helpful. Standing in for the Ancients of the official Traveller universe there are the Gardeners and the Precursors. Nowhere near as old and perhaps not quite as enigmatic, these are again used to explain some of the similarity of life and environments on multiple worlds. They also add to the texture of role playing and provide further avenues for adventure or conflict. Lots of history, politics and corporations are provided for humans. Much briefer details for the alien races – perhaps we’ll see more on them later. For those who will inevitably ask, psionics are included in this setting, although much like the official Traveller universe they’re kept relatively restricted. Religion also plays a part in various ways as well but is handled sensitively and appropriately. It would be easy enough to play this up to be a major part of the game if desired, or allowed to fade into the background if preferred.

Moving onto character generation, always a staple in such books, These Stars Are Ours! does nothing exceptionally different in its 53 page chapter (a quarter of the book) and lays them out in a similar way to the core rules of Cepheus Engine. First off you can use several of the careers from the Cepheus Engine core rulebook directly – which is in any case required for play. Secondly, TSAO offers 20 new careers (although it claims only 16) specifically for the setting. From aliens to intelligence operatives and from nobles to the ‘standards’ of scouts or navy or merchants. As with the core rules, instead of each career following each other, they’re described and then TSAO rules are detailed followed by tables that collect all the careers into groups of four. This would work quite well except that each career as usual takes two tables which are on two back-to-back pages which maximises page turning. Cepheus Engine doesn’t follow Mongoose Traveller in including events tables, but TSAO does. It provides 2D6 tables for each of their careers (but not the relevant core rulebook careers) as well as a 2D6 table for War Events and one for Civilian Events. Rules for augments, cybernetics, cyborgs and body modifications are also given.

The chapter on starships offers some variant rules the authors recommend following to better convey the flavour of the setting (advanced sensors for example, or steerage passage). A table of ship quirks further gives variety to games using These Stars Are Ours!. The 23 page chapter includes deck plans, illustrations, details and descriptions of two small craft and five starships: a 30-ton Reticulan Civilian Saucer and 30-ton Reticular Military Saucer; a 200-ton Sesslessian Infiltrator, 300-ton Terran Shaka-class Light Military Transport, 300-ton Zhuzzh Scavenger, 400-ton Cicek Raider and 600-ton Reticulan Abductor. The deck plans are the usual clarity and quality of Ian Stead’s work. His illustrations are good enough in greyscale but are much more striking in all their coloured glory in the PDF.

Chapter 5 covers astrography, starting with the spectral classes of stars and the temperatures of worlds with a useful table to generate the latter for any world. Worlds in TSAO all have temperatures added to their name and UWP string which is such a fundamental to adventuring on any given planet it seems surprising that this hasn’t become standard before. The authors should be commended for this innovation alone – although there are some instantly adoptable bits throughout. The ‘Known Space’ of TSAO is large but described rather than mapped. This volume provides a map for about two subsectors worth of worlds along the border of the United Terran Republic and the Reticulan Empire, with three other polities just about making an appearance. This is plenty to be going on with and one of the key features is that there is room for scout explorers to go off to unknown worlds. The map is unrelated to the Third Imperium setting unsurprisingly but is otherwise virtually identical in design with similar Traveller maps. It’s perhaps a little surprising, however, that Stellagama didn’t choose to use their own Near Space work as a basis for the setting given that it is based around Sol (Terra). My guess would be that it didn’t give the authors quite what they wanted in the way of star placement which is fair enough. Unfortunately for the printed version of the map, the distinction between the symbols for ‘water present’, ‘no water present’ and ‘fluid oceans’ is invisble. It is clear enough in the colour PDF version of the map although that in turn is slightly larger on the page because it’s without a key. The key is a welcome addition to the printed version, but different markings should be used for future editions. An electronic version of the map, in colour, is in any case available as a download if purchasing print and PDF. The remainder of the chapter gives a paragraph of description to each world. These are short but adequate for the purpose and will give referees enough to hang visits on, if perhaps not longer duration stays on a world.

The final chapter details a dozen patrons, some alien, with name, title and what they need the PCs to do (but no UPP strings which isn’t a major problem); the skills and equipment needed for the job; a description of the job; referee information and six complications apiece. These act as 12 adventure starters and provide a variety of beginnings that would get players going without too much difficulty. There are no fully blown adventures for the setting but given the publisher’s track record, they may be coming in supporting material. Four Terran News Agency Dispatches are given in the style of TAS news items and they’re worthy enough but feel a little detached from anything else. It might have served better if there had been more of them and maybe spread them out through the book. Or perhaps more clearly linked them with the history and politics of chapter one.

The single column layout of text is clear enough although a double column design might have looked more contemporary. The overall design can best be described perhaps as ‘simple’ but personally I’d much rather that than the totally over-engineered practice in some role playing books of shaded backgrounds, nearly impossible to read text and much wasted space. Less easy to give a pass to on the other hand are the page numbers on the insides of pages making them hard to read and with even numbers on the right for some reason – although as it happens, this follows the Cepheus Engine core rules example which does the same thing. If this were corrected, it would mean that the related careers tables would appear on facing pages which would be a great boon. On the upside, the text size throughout is good – though some tables are quite small – and the font choice for body text, titles and subtitles is clear and attractive.

These Stars Are Ours! is a great addition to the Cepheus Engine universe and provides a setting that will be at once not unfamiliar to long time Travellers, and yet offers much that is fresh and novel to give old-timers and newcomers a solid platform from which to base all the usual types of adventure: exploration, merchant, military, noble and much, much more. It should also be possible for those who’ve used Attack Squadron: Roswell from Zozer to make this setting a kind of future for that timeline without much work. Unless you have your heart fixed on creating your own universe – no small task – or are already wrapped up in any of the established settings, then this is definitely worth a look and I hope is well supported by the publisher or others in the future.