Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A Deeper Look at Seeded Space

A while ago I picked up a Sci-Fi OSR rpg off of Lulu called Seeded Space. (Here's the direct link.) Now, while this game came out in 2011, I just recently discovered it while perusing Lulu looking for gaming material in general. Even though it is a couple years old, it has come after other OSR sci-fi games. Sci-Fi has always second fiddle to fantasy in RPG's, however, the OSR market has quite a few games in that genre: Stars Without Number, Mutant Future, Machinations of the Space Princess, Bandits and Battlecruisers, X-Plorers, Starships & Spacemen, and Hulks & Horrors to name a few. With all of these games already out there, Seeded Space is entering an already crowded area of my gaming collection. Let's see if it can stand out?

Seeded Space is only available in print on demand through Lulu. I've heard a few complaints about the quality of the print jobs and bindings of books bought through Lulu, but this is as well put together as anything put out by WotC, Palladium, or SJG so no problems there. (This is actually my second print purchase through Lulu, the first being the previous edition of Rogue Space, and both books have been top notch quality.) It clocks in at 112 pages of text. There's no art in Seeded Space, however the author, Scott W Roberts is working on another version of the book with art if this version sells well enough.

Speaking of the introduction, Mr Roberts paints up a vision of what the setting of Seeded Space looks like with FLT travel, vampires, cyborgs, and rampant genetic engineering in a galaxy far, far away in the past or future. Really, the setting is kept pretty vague, which I rather like. So often sci-fi games come tied heavily to the setting, and since I like to do my own thing that's a bit of a turn off. No problem with that here. After the very short intro, he jumps into a quick and dirty conversion of the metric system (which is the measurement standard for the game) and the Success Range System that's used for skills and character abilities. The Success Range System is a simple d6 roll to attempt to roll within a set range based on the character's skill level with a certain skill or ability with the lower the roll the better. Skills are kept to a succinct eight skills: Awareness, Covert, Social, Athletic, Knowledge, Control, Survival, and Technical. While I am used to games with giant skill lists, this short and sweet list should cover just about anything a character would want to attempt and is very keeping with the light feel of the game in general.

Now would be a good time to mention that Seeded Space is built off of Swords & Wizardry, so if you're not really a fan of that retro-clone, you may not like some the rules assumptions in this game. I happen to love S&W, but your mileage may vary.

Character Creation is your standard OSR faire: Roll for the six Attribute scores, pick a race, and pick a class. In addition to the standard character creation steps, characters that are of a certain race can select a character trait. Traits are minor abilities that range from special weapon training to a bonus to rolls against certain effects. Characters can gain Traits in one of two ways: first, they have to be one of three certain races (and Synthetic characters cannot select traits) and have a score of 14 or better in their Prime Requisite stat and one other, or secondly they can select a Trait if they first take on a randomly selected Flaw. Flaws are hindrances ranging to penalties in combat due to drug addiction to being unable to defend against psionic attacks.

Seeded Space has a selection of 11 races for players to choose from. They range from normal humans to genetically engineered humans (Genies) to various anthropomorphic races and Synthetics (robots and such). There are no ability score bonuses and penalties, but there are soft requisites for selecting a species such as with the Zeroes (Space Pilots, think beings live most of their lives in low-G space environments aboard starships): they cannot have their highest stat scores in Strength or Constitution or their lowest scores in Dexterity. I rather like that option as opposed to the hard "Strength 9 or better to play this race" seen in a lot of OSR games. It's a new spin on an old idea that still feels "old school." Each race has their own special abilities and hindrances and if they cannot be of a certain class (Zeroes cannot be rangers, for instance) it is stated in their write-up. The descriptions are short, and even a bit vague. There is only the barest hint of what each race is like personality-wise. That's once again keeping with the feel that Seeded Space is meant to be a base for a GM to build upon.

There are random tables to generating what a character was like before stepping out on the path to fortune, fame, and glory. There is also a table for generating societal quirks and customs should the player feel stumped or can't be arsed to put that much thought into the character.

There are seven character classes to choose from in Seeded Space: Psychic, Fighter, Ranger, Technician, Agent, Specialist, and Medic. Each class has their own special abilities and niche they fill in the galaxy. In keeping with the OSR feel, each class has it's own XP progression. In keeping with the Swords & Wizardry base SS is built on: Saving Throws are one score. It also uses Ascending AC and To-Hit bonuses solely, however.

Lastly in character creation: alignment. There are five alignments in the game: Lawful, Chaotic, Neutral, Good, and Evil. Any character that becomes evil becomes a NPC. I know that alignments are big part of the OSR experience, but I've never much cared for them. However, I do like the looseness of the alignments presented in Seeded Space. They don't feel like a crutch or are written in a way for an obnoxious player to feel he has to play exactly to his alignment at all times no matter how disrupting or aggravating that can be.

Next up is Equipment. This is one of the weakest sections in the book. It's pretty much just the standard Swords & Wizardry items with a few sci-fi bits thrown in. Reading the gear section was like getting doused with cold water. All of a sudden, I felt like I'm reading about a fantasy RPG again. The "Modern" equipment lists includes Muskets and flintlock rifles. Nowhere is there mention of laser swords, power armor, or anything really modern, not to mention futuristic. Very disappointing for a game whose implied setting talks about FTL travel. Now, there are more high-tech items later in the book, so it's not like there aren't any high-tech gadgets but I'll get to those in a bit.

Next up is the standard "How to Play" section. It does cover, once again very briefly, interstellar travel, psychic duels, spacefaring societies, and Technical research. It's all pretty standard stuff. It does go into how vehicle stats are figured up, but the fine details are largely left up to the GM.

Next up is Psychic Powers, which are pretty much just spells. There's nothing wrong with calling spells psionics and using the same rules (though psychics in SS use power points to fuel their powers and aren't bound to memorization like magic-users, but I digress). There are a good selection of powers that range across 6 levels of power.

The GM Information section redeems the disappointment found upon reading the Equipment. Along with the standard info on awarding XP and the like, it details hazards like Brain Damage, which can cause the character to develop different physical and mental maladies. There's a bit about "Cyborg Invaders" that are pretty much Stark Trek's Borg. There's plenty of special rules for Genetic Experimentation, gravity sickness, and alien diseases. There's more hints of the setting that Mr. Roberts had in mind when creating SS here. There are plenty of charts and tables to allow for easy generation of colonies, maladies, planets, systems, and even planet features to help GM's that are in a creative bind or just need something rolled up quick. There was one table that was just...odd to me. It was a table detailing what "ultra-atheist activists" were doing that could be construed as marginally insulting if the reader is an atheist. It really doesn't fit with the chapter, and even for a random "what are the cultists doing" table, there needn't even need a specific line of thought applied to the table. It would have worked better as just a generic cultist table.

The Creature section is next and starts off with the standard explanation of the stats and special rules. The creatures are largely S&W critters with some sci-fi re-imagining for a few of them. There are a few original creatures though. Since the creatures use standard S&W stats, it would be easy to pick up any of the various S&W monster books to introduce a new alien into the game.

The Special Technology and Reward section follows up the bestiary. This is where you will find high-tech gear. Mr. Roberts starts off with details on how gear equals up to psychic powers in the hopes of helping GM's keep the gear on an even keel with psychic characters. Basically, high-tech gear takes the place of magic items. So, even though your character may come from an advanced society, the best you're going to do for weapons and armor is primitive stuff until you find a blaster in an abandoned base or something else along those lines. That's all well and good for a game like Mutant Future, but for a space opera game such design assumptions feel strange and run counter to genre norms. Here you'll find cybernetics, high-tech weapons and protective gear, wondrous medicines, and other assorted goodies.

A short adventure follows the Special Tech section. To be honest, I rarely read the starter adventures. It's rare that I ever use them, and this is no exception. I'll likely read through it someday, and if it blows me away, I'll let you know.

The book is rounded out with a synopsis of the Seeded Space setting and a list of inspirational sources. It's five pages long and details some of the big players in the politics of the galactic arm where most of the action is centered. It's an interesting read, and contains some good ideas. The thing I like the most is how it just brushes the setting without getting bogged down in details. That's something I like the most about SS: the feel of the book from beginning to end is one in which the GM is free to set his own course. He can use this chapter to fuel his own games or can just as easily ignore it entirely to no detriment to the game.

So, what do I really think about Seeded Space? I think it's a fine attempt that falls a bit flat for me. I like the lightness of the rules, but some things are just too vague, like the generation of vehicle stats. Maybe a more bare-bones and descriptive take on space battles would work out in play, but it just doesn't feel like there's enough there to do such scenes justice. Seeded Space really feels too married to the OSR ideals, so much so that it feels like a standard fantasy game with some sci-fi elements bolted on. If that was the original design goal, great, mission accomplished, but it clashes with the introduction and the description of the game. Plus, the lack of art makes SS feel more like a beta of a game than a truly finished product. I totally understand the lack of art, as getting art commissioned is expensive, but there are lots of great public domain pieces out there that would have spruced up the game a bit and give it more of a finished feel. All is not lost, however, there are still good bits here and there that can be ported over into other OSR sci-fi games and Mr. Roberts has some new ways of keeping that old school feel without doing everything the same as it was before that are worth looking into. I just don't know that I can fully recommend the book to anyone that already has one or more of the other OSR sci-fi games listed earlier in this post. Plus, at nearly $15, it is a bit pricey for a game that I likely won't run except in chunks. I really wish there would have been an e-book option. Even at $8, SS would have been more worth the price of admission.

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