The Preface and Introduction between them set the scene and evoke long-lost memories of early gaming in childhood (OK so I am a bit older than the author so there were no videogames to play with, and D&D didn't turn up until I was 18!). It all captures the magic of the alternate realities we inhabit as role-players, and gets you ready for this one, which you might have met before if you have played any of the Elite videogames. They were quasi-role-playing of themselves, but now with this game, that universe comes to life as a full-blown role-playing game. In a nutshell, your characters inhabit a universe where spaceship ownership is as common as car ownership is today, where there is vast inequality between rich and poor, weapons are easily available, life is cheap but opportunites for the brave and fortuate are endless...
There are basically three types of game that you can play. There are exploration games, espionage games (these include the police procedural ones like in the quickstart adventure The Worst Intentions that is bundled with the core rulebook), and military ones. Or in the true spirit of Elite itself, you can be 'Lone Wolf' individuals who nibble at the edges of civilisation to make your living. These are just ideas, of course, this is a rich canvas in which you may tell any story that you please.
We then dive straight in with Chapter 1: Character Creation. The process is summarised in a single page, but of course it's a bit more complex than that as you need to choose backgrounds and skills - even if you do get Trained Pilot background for free, 'cos zipping about in a spaceship is core to the game. You need to pick four backgrounds, which feed into the skills you bring to the game. These can be chosen or rolled for on a random table. A background generally gives you about four skills or their equivalent - some give eight and occupy two slots in your list of backgrounds. Each is described in a few sentences which build up to give an outline of your character's past.
One of the more interesting choices for a background is 'partner' - this gives you a whole other person who tags along with you, and has a character sheet of their own. It's suggested that the GM may role-play this individual, but another method - especially if several players in the group have partners - is to trade them amongst the group, playing each other's partners. One of the things coming out of the process already is a strong sense of 'You are the hero of your own story' and it's going to be interesting to see how this fits into the group or party oriented mindset of most RPGs, as characters are developed in isolation. There is a Karma point system which reiterate that 'You are the hero' view, with Karma Capabilities (you choose from a list and get Escape Death as a bonus one) and points which you can use to reroll a bad die roll... and all are consumed if you call upon Escape Death! They do regenerate, though...
Finally there are eight starships to pick from. They are all one- or two-person craft (if you have a partner you'll need a two-seater), or you can design your own with a 100.000 credit budget (which doesn't go that far...) if you prefer. But EVERY player-character has his or her own ship. You then need to give your character a name and decide what he looks like, and get some basic equipment. Then, adventure awaits...
Or at least it will once you've got through Chapter 2: Playing the Game. This begins by talking about the overall objective (to have fun and make a vast fortune whilst having exciting adventures) and the various GM-set goals you will need to achieve along the way. Several examples are given, all more or less open-ended as to what you're going to do about the situation. Then on to using those skills you just determined that your character has, a matter of deciding what skill you wish to use, getting a difficulty number to roll over and making your attempt by rolling a D10 and adding your skill bonus. If you use a skill, even if you are not successful, you put a tick beside it and at the end of the adventure you can raise it by 1 until you reach the level cap (40 for a starting character) - but only once per skill per adventure however many times you use it. There's a brief description of all the skills so that you can decide which one you want to use, and an explanation of how characters advance to higher levels - you don't want to go around labelled Harmless for ever, after all! This is done by amassing Rank Points, awarded by the GM for things like defeating a foe or succeeding with a skill that materially advances the adventure.
Chapter 3 is devoted to Combat, and it explains how combat works in space, between vehicles (planetside ones, that is), and in person. Combat in person is often conducted at a distance with firearms, but you can also brawl with fists or wave a sword around if you are feeling a bit mediaeval! When engaged in a fight, you may or may not choose to use a map - it depends if you like freeform fighting or a more 'miniatures skirmish' style. Both styles are accommodated here, it's really a matter of personal choice which your group will use. Combat proceeds through a turn-based system, with initiative determined by die roll. During your turn you can move up to ten metres and take an action, with numerous special cases according to circumstances. Note that artificial gravity has not been invented in this universe (although large ships and space stations can generate it through rotation) so characters will often find themselves in a micro-gravity environment. Most folk wear magboots, which keep your feet secure yet allow for movement: if you have them you can move normally in a low gravity environment - but if you're caught without yours movement can get a bit tricky! Wounds and healing are also covered here, before the discussion moves on to space combat. In this game, it's conducted at very close range - a few kilometers at most - and bears a lot of simularity to an aerial dogfight or naval ships in the age of sail exchanging broadsides with the added feature of fighting in three dimensions. A rough map does help here, whether or not you like them for personal combat. Again there is a whole range of actions you can perform both in preparation for combat and once the furball begins. It's also explained how you take (or deal out) damage and how it is repaired during combat. If things go too badly wrong, you might abandon ship by taking to the escape pods (if your ship has them). Finally vehicle combat is covered. It's similar to space combat except there are far more obstacles to crash into, and the ground limits the directions in which you can move.
Next, Chapter 4: The Galaxy is a guided tour of a spaceship, delivered as if you are taking delivery of a new one. This is followed by an overview of the galaxy itself, politically speaking. It's an amusingly ideosyncratic discourse, with an Empire and a Federation (both have advantages and disadvantages) and an Alliance of Independent Systems, as well as many independent worlds... quite a lot to take in but it all makes for a fascinating read. Under the guise of 'Good Citizenship in Space' it also explains what is acceptable behaviour out in the black.
Chapter 5: Personal Equipment follows, with details of all manner of items as well as the currency used. There are enough varieties of weapons to keep the most ardent gun-bunny content, with plenty of illustrations and descriptions as well as game mechanical information... and a selection of 'rare' items which could interest the collector or someone seeking a signature weapon. Armour - considered a bit crass to wear in public without very good reason - is also covered, as are cybernetic modifications, which again can have a negative effect on how people view the modified individual. Moving on to ordinary clothing we discover that in a very judgemental galaxy what you wear influences how others perceive you, via a Social Factor mechanic that quantifies the effect. There's all manner of other items of equipment here too, from communicators to cosmetics!
Next, Chapter 6: Spacecraft provides the lowdown on how cheap faster-than-light travel and the mass-production of ships has transformed the galaxy and the lives of inhabitants, with spaceship ownership akin to today's role of cars. All spacecraft come with weapons, as space piracy is rife. As already noted, it's a basic 'given' of the game that each player-character has his or her own ship, rather than the party sharing one as in most games. Here there are further details of the ships mentioned in the character generation section and of many more besides, and there are also rules for those who'd prefer to design their own ship from the keel up. A lot is based on the way the Elite: Dangerous videogame handles spacecraft, although some of the calculations have been simplified on the grounds that computers do sums a lot better than most role-players do! There is still an impressive amount to wade through if you do want to get into ship customisation, however. For the technically-minded, faster-than-light travel is empowered by a 'frame shift drive' although there's no real indication of what that does, just a few passing mentions of 'witchspace'. In normal space, thrusters are used. And yes, you can purchase a Docking Computer, which my husband, an Elite veteran, claims is essential as it takes all the bother out of docking with a rotating space station!
Chapter 7: Vehicles then does much the same for planetside vehicles as the preceeding chapter did for spacecraft. On normal inhabited and civilised planets, virtually all vehicles are autonomous and 'driving' consists of telling the vehicle where you want to go, however there are plenty places where the necessary infrastructure is not present and you still have to actually take control yourself. You do need, however, to make sure that your spacecraft has a large enough hanger to transport any vehicle you purchase... although no doubt it is possible to rent a vehicle for one-off use planetside. Some vehicles are designed for airless worlds, others operate in atmosphere while submarines and aircraft are also available.
That's it for the player section. We are now in to Gamemaster territory. It opens by explaining how daunting a first attempt at GMing can be... yet it's also rewarding and exciting as well. It discusses attitude and approach before getting down to mechanics like how to set difficulty numbers for task resolution... and how to handle the outcomes, good and bad, once the roll has been made. The discussion then moves on to the types of game you can run, with considerations as to how much preparation you can and want to do, how much you like freeform gaming compared to having a plot ready for the party to interact with and so on. Loads of ideas here. The first suggestion, for those who like very defined adventures, is a military or police campaign, then there's material about intrigue and espionage based ones. Then there's the major interstellar industry of exploring new worlds in search of places to exploit or colonise. There's frequent reference to the Random Generation System (RGS, detailed later!) which reduces the work of prior planning and preparation - it can even be used mid-game to create, for example, a new solar system even as the characters fly into it!
Yet the 'default' setting for a game based on Elite has to be the Lone Wolf one, with each character in his own ship - as laid out in the character creation rules - each working for himself, an independent operator. The constraints of a traditional role-playing group demand that they have to cooperate, but because they choose to do so rather than for employment reasons (be it military, police, exploration company or whatever). While these can be difficult to run, because the characters can go where they want and do what they want, there are certain frameworks that you can set, such as mission-based games. Perhaps they freelance for the aforementioned organisations, taking discrete jobs when the opportunity arises. Military, espionage and exploration missions can work well, as can 'cargo delivery' tasks. Or you can run a sandbox game: give them an area of space and a starting point and let them go where they like. It does take a fair bit of pre-planning, although the crafty will have a series of generic adventures that happen in whatever place the party has decided to go, or ones which are tagged to certain places but have no timescale, they'll occur when the party enters System X, be that the first place they go or the last. The RGS can help, but it's best if there is some kind of overarching plot. The Elite Dangerous galaxy has some 20,000 civilised star systems, but you don't need to design them all at once! Start with a dozen or so, and grow your galaxy over time. A lot of GMing will involve making things up on the spot, if only because the most unpredictable creature in known space is the player-character! Fortunately there's help available here about some perceived common occurences, many combat-related... but there are notes on all manner of things from hiring crew for a ship to making up new Backgrounds for people to use during character creation, and much, much more.
Then a concept of Between Adventures is introduced. This is a time for all the housekeeping, trading, ship- and character-improving tasks you don't want to role-play out but which do serve the progrssion of character and game as a whole. Perhaps the characters earn some money through independent activities in between the times they operate as a group. This can be abstracted - if you find too much detail sneaking in it may be worthy of some playing time, although some folks do like a reasonable level of detail even in their 'off-screen' time. The trick is to abstract the stuff you don't care to occupy role-playing time with, and use it to set up the things you do want to play out. It's quite a neat rationalisation.
But there's more. Chapter 9: Opponents provides advice about creating and using the opposition - individuals and organisations. At the most basic level, they come in three kinds: personal, vehicle and spaceship. These, of course, are the ones that the party have to fight - but the discussion soon moves on to creating encounters and provides pleny of examples at all three scales, grouped as military/mercenary, criminal, police/security and so on. Alien animals are also included for those venturing planetside; and finally there are drones for the technologically-inclined. Chapter 10: Rewards discusses how to reward characters appropriately for what they do, both in terms of cash and in terms of character advancement.
Finally, then, we reach the long-awaited Random Generation System. It's been mentioned enough in preceeding chapters, and now here it is in all its glory: an array of tables to help you generate systems, missions, just about anything you might need. It's equally useful for planning a game or in the middle of one when you need something in a hurry, and just reading the options available can often spawn ideas... and of course you can ignore the result of a roll when a better idea occurs, even if you started out setting something up randomly.
A raft of Appendices to aid in creative processes, then we are done. There's great potential here and it's playable irrespective of whether or not your group enjoys the Elite videogames. The concept of having each player-character running his own ship may be a bit of a challenge: do they travel as a pack, or when they get together do they dock their personal vessels and embark on something big enough for all of them? The entire game system is very open and adaptable, but the GM is going to have to do some groundwork - even if it's furious die-rolling against the RGS - before you are ready to go. Unless your group wants a police proceduaral in space game, the Quickstart that comes bundled with the core rulebook is more to introduce the system than to kick-start your campaign. Have fun, and keep your blaster handy!