Starcluster 2nd Edition is a science fiction RPG in the vein of Traveller; it favors small scale space opera involving smugglers, merchants, scouts, & soldiers making their way in a vast and not very friendly universe. It is built on solid percentile mechanics and utilizes a detailed year by year education/career system to define characters. It is set against a detailed, unique universe, called the Cluster, which ended up as the final refuge of a displaced humanity after Earth was destroyed in a supernova. This refuge was reached at long last by slower-than-light generation ships filled with refugees fleeing earth before its destruction. Upon their arrival they found many worlds connected by jump routes, 3 of those worlds were home to descendants of transplanted humankind, adapted to the rigours of their homeworlds, the Sastra, Vantor, & Tagris. Thus the game provides a vast detailed universe in which the players can play out the adventures of their characters as they seek their fortunes among the closely connected stars of the Cluster.
This chapter starts with the story of history past, specifically what drove the Diaspora of the peoples from Earth, and the surrounding solar system. This back story, the exodus of peoples from the Earth's solar system via slower than light generation ships, which took place over a couple hundred of years, leaves some interesting options open for the GM and players. They can add new elements to the game as their campaign progresses, in the form of interesting new cultures of people arriving on an unknown generation ship.
CHARACTER GENERATION, SKILLS & METASKILLS, AND HUMANS & HUMANOIDS
These three chapters definitely could have benefited from a short overview of the mechanics of the game, in order to provide players with a better grasp on what the skill numbers and other statistics generated in these chapters mean. Secondly, a better overview of the steps in the character generation process and how they relate to each other would have helped as well.
After reading through these chapters a couple of times, and the playing the game chapter once or twice, you would have found out the characters are defined by three sets of key statistics, Attributes, Race, and Skills. Two of these statistics are constrained by the character's birth world and its inherited Tech level. The character?s Tech Level, as determined by his Birth World determines the possible range of three of the character's attributes, IQ, PSI, and (Social) Rank. It also determines the education options the character has open to him and through that the skills he will be able to acquire.
Now the Attributes, most of which are rated from two to 12 or more, with the average being seven, are Strength (STR), Coordination (COOR), Agility (AGY), Endurance (END), Charisma (CHA), IQ, PSI, and (Social) Rank (RANK). IQ, for reasons I do not understand, uses the ?real world? scale where an IQ score of 100 is average, so while you might have an STR of 8 and END of 8, your IQ is 125. PSI tends to range from 0, no PSI ability, to 5 or more. Attributes provide a modifier to a skill for which they are a controlling attribute. This modifier is +5% for each 2 points they are over 7, so +10% at 9, +15% at 11. I didn?t see it mentioned if the reverse is true, that stats below 7 provide a -5% modifier for every 2 points below 7. IQ is an exception of course, in which case the modifier is equal to +1% for every point of IQ over 120. Your physical attributes are used to determine your Constitution ((STR+COOR+AGY+END)*10), which should just be called Hit Points or something, since that?s what they are. Finally, many education and careers options have minimum attribute requirements.
Two options are presented for generating your attributes, random or directed. Random, you roll 2d6 for most of your attributes, except for IQ, PSI and RANK, for which you roll percentile dice and compare the result to a table based on your character?s Tech Level, as determined by his Home World. In the directed method you are given two sets of points, 35 to split between your STR, COOR, AGY, END, & CHA, and 135 points to assign towards your ?rolls? on the IQ/PSI/Rank table. You don?t spend the points directly, but instead take the score that a roll equal to the points assigned to the attribute would generate.
There are four ?races? in the Starcluster universe, which can inter-breed to form an additional 3 types of hybrids. The races are ?Human?, Sastra, Vantor, & Tagris, and the Hybrids are called SaHus, VaHus, and HuTas.
Sastra are a race of humans adapted towards climbing, being smaller and slighter than average humans and sporting a prehensile tail and large feet which can manipulate objects and pivot like a wrist, think of humans gengineered to have monkey or marsupial features. They have fur on most of their bodies and large pointed ears which give them greater than human hearing. SaHus can have features of either parent.
Vantor are a race of humans adapted to aquatic environments, they have broad, muscular tails, and broad finned feet, how that works wasn?t obvious from the picture of the Vantor, though she was hot. They are also described as having no body hair, with their bodies being covered by a unique pattern of stripes, whorls, spots, clusters, or splotches, depending on the Vantor. The Vantor-human hybrids, VaHus can have features of either parent as well.
Tagris are a race of humans with features similar to large cats such as tigers. They are larger and stronger than the average human, but have limited endurance compared to a human. Part of this greater strength is achieved by having their arm muscles anchored to their necks and heads as well as shoulders. The most notable feature in comparison to human?s, other than their size, is that their heads are covered in fur, except for the mouth and chin with their ears set high on their head. The Tagris-Human hybrids are called HuTas, and again can have the distinctive features of either race.
The primary effect of the choice of race is the attribute modifiers associated with each race. No information is provided as to how these different races are integrated into society or if there are any reaction modifiers or other effects associated with your choice of race, in the Humans and Humanoids chapter.
Skills are rated in levels, with a skill level of 0 representing no training/skill and +1 representing rudimentary ability, with Skill levels reaching +10 or more. Your chance of success is equal to a base chance of 40%, + 5xSkill Level. When attempting tasks in which you have no skill, i.e. a skill level of +0, you chance of success is equal to the Skills controlling Attribute, unless it is based on IQ, in which case it is a flat 10%, regardless of IQ. (Again with the non-standard handling of IQ, sigh. ) Which is the number you must roll less than or equal to on the percentage dice to succeed in using a skill.
A short section explaining these things would have helped new players get into the system much easier. As it stands, these things must be gleaned by scouring over the first three chapters and the playing the game chapter.
Knowing the things described above would have made the actual character generation process much easier to follow. Character generation in Starcluster 2nd edition, is similar to that in the Traveller games, you follow your character?s life path year by year through his education and career choices, improving his skills and attributes as you go (no survival rolls though, so you character won?t die in character generation.) Your character?s basic stats represent his abilities at age 10. You get 4 ?mother?s milk? skills based on his Rank and upbringing, representing childhood skills he learned. You then choose a secondary school for your character, gaining additional skills. From there you can choose to have your character pursue secondary education, assuming he can afford it (You have an amount of starting credits based on your social rank), or enter into a career. You guide your character through careers and education until you reach the age in which he will adventure at, and then he enters play.
You might think it is best to make your character as old as possible, so he can have the maximum skills; however there is Physical Deterioration to contend with. Every 3 years, starting at age 34, your character loses on point from one of his physical attributes. This being the future, it is possible to reduce the rate of this deterioration of your character?s abilities by the use of Boost, which reduces the rate to one point every 12 years.
There is no adventure based experience system in these rules, advancement only occurs through the year by year method. A character?s adventure(s) are assumed to be the most exciting thing that happens to him in that year, the rest is assumed to be his normal schooling/career. There are a large number of tables detailing each education and career option, defining the skills the character can gain and his chance for promotions, etc. It is a pretty good system, as proven in Traveller and other games.
EQUIPMENT, PERSONAL & EQUIPMENT, WEAPONS
This Personal Equipment chapter opens with a discussion of the prevalent technologies at each tech level, including the primary materials and power systems used, then goes on to list various pieces of equipment including their weights and costs. Due to the significant number of low-tech worlds in the Cluster, many low-tech items and armor are defined as well. The armor types even include ?wicker? which the text informs us is very effective against arrows & darts (Thus the discerning player will have his power armor clad warrior carry a wicker shield just in case he is waylaid by a band of pygmies.). Popular fabrics and other details of clothing are described as well. All in all, the equipment is fairly standard, though little information is provided about the prevalence of computers and information networks within the Cluster. An interesting omission, also little is said about nano-tech and bio-tech. I get the impression that Starcluster goes for a more classic space opera feel, and downplays any cyberpunk/trans-human elements in its technology base.
The weapons chapter provides statistic for both modern and archaic weapons, all of which see use within the cluster. High tech items include arc swords, laser pistols & rifles, gyrojet pistols, slug throwers, molecular swords, sonic weapons, & stun weapons. No plasma weapons or other high-tech energy weapons are listed. Archaic weapons are what you would expect, with nun-chuks and katana listed, because even in the future they are damn cool.
Weapons use hit tables based on the damage type and armor type against which they are being used. Damage types include, cut, arrow, bash, kinetic, energy, electric, sting, & unarmed, pitted against hide, ballistic, steel, plate, ceramic, plasteel, chromeskin, and wicker, yes wicker. Though, as explained in the designer?s notes, armor reduces damage, these damage reductions are front-loaded in the resolution process, and are handled as to-hit modifiers instead, for ease of use.
PLAYING THE GAME
This fairly short chapter includes a brief discussion of the play style assumed by the game, and then dives into the combat rules followed by some skill use rules.
Starcluster is based on a ?survival? model, that is, your main goal is assumed to be your character surviving to gain more skill & ability. The default campaign is assumed to a linked series of adventures, each presumed to take place over a period of years, spanning the character?s career. Thus you first adventure or two might involve a military character fresh from the academy, then a few years later in his first campaign, and years later as grizzled NCO leading a troop in a campaign.
Combat in Starcluster is conducted in one-minute long rounds divided into a 120 segments called initiatives. A character?s initiative score is determined by the roll of percentage dice. This is the character?s base initiative. A character can take penalties to his hit or damage rolls to speed up his initiative, acting on an earlier segment or can delay his initiative, thereby gaining a bonus to his hit or damage rolls. Character?s with high skill levels with certain weapons are able to make additional attacks during a round, each occurring 10 segments later, the first occurring on his acting initiative segment. Character?s make attacks using their weapon skills, damage is based on the weapon modifier plus the roll of a d100 (damage values of 100 or more are common, as most characters have between 250 and 350 Constitution). A character has 4 damage levels, Normal, Hindered, Unconscious, and Seriously Wounded, corresponding to 1/4, 1/2, and 3/4 of his Constitution. As you will note, there are no automatic dead results, most character will be knocked unconscious as a result of combat.
STAR TRAVEL & SPACE COMBAT
This chapter describes space travel within the Cluster, which is accomplished via the use of A-grav, g-Drive, and jump. A-Grav is the use of anti-gravity fields for propulsion and used mostly to and from orbit, G-drive is a anti-matter based reaction drive and is used mostly for in-system travel. Finally, Jump is based on the use of a Jump field guided by a psionic navigator, no spice required. Jumps are limited to the closed system of Jump routes which are based on stellar type and location. The Jump drive only works within the Cluster, as the jump routes don?t extend beyond the confines of the cluster, limiting travel to slower-than-light means.
Starship combat is conducted in a series of turns, in which movement, fire, damage control, etc are performed as tasks by the crew members. Damage is handled similarly to that of characters, with ships having a constitution score based on their size.
GUIDE TO CLUSTER POLITICS & SOCIETIES
This chapter provides an overview of the political divisions of the Cluster as well information on the major worlds that it comprises. The Cluster is dominated by the SaVaHuTa, a loose confederation of world including the Diasporan humans, and the ?native? species of the Sastra, Vantor, and Tagris. Second is the Diasporan Community, which is much smaller than the SaVaHuTa, there defining feature being their xenophobia and distrust of the Sastra, Vantor, and Tagris, whom they do not consider human. There are also the Independent Worlds and the Thieve?s Worlds rounding things out. There is a League of Alien Nations, there being a number of non-human species native to the cluster. No information is given on the actual alien species nor any information on playing them as characters. The chapter is rounded out with a detailed description of the Aztec system, suitable as a beginning area for play, some nice maps of the Aztec system and the Cluster round out this section.
Overall, the Cluster presents a pretty interesting environment for play with some engaging elements. Things seem focused on small scale actions by players making their way among the worlds of the cluster, as there are no great monolithic empires or opposing empires to go to war or such. Smugglers, merchant princes, and fleet captains are all likely adventurer types to include. There is the ?seeder? background, the aliens who seeded the humans that would become the Sastra, Vantor & Tagris, as well as the now collapsed Etvar Empire, plus all manner of intrigues between the various states and the SaVaHuTa and Diasporan Community.
This chapter provides some insight into why certain mechanics were designed they way they were. Most useful for players who want to use the system are the core goals of the system, from the text.
The basic, core goals of StarCluster are:
? To sustain a survival oriented, realistic style of play
? To promote unique and memorable characters
? To allow for competent but not vastly superior characters
? To allow for various methods of game structure, both traditional (Campaign, One Shot) and nontraditional (Serialized Adventures, Flashbacks) as the GM and players wish.
? To allow for various points of emphasis, Exploration, Story Arc, Combat, and Social interaction, among others.
PRESENTATION & LAYOUT
The document makes use of both single column and double column layout throughout The PDF (as a second look shows). Certain sections definitely would have benefited from using a multi-column layout, especially in presenting the numerous tables. The artwork appears to be doctored model photos against hand done backdrops using a kind of watercolor or oil paint filter or effect. The effect is hit or miss, with some of the illustrations looking quit striking and other ones looking like a quick photoshop job. Overall it is pretty good though. The text doesn?t make use of bookmarks, but the TOC and Index use hyperlinks (the page numbers are linked in the index, not the index entry it corresponds to.), however. It is serviceable, but better layout would make the tables easier to nagivate and save on paper should you want to print them out.
Starcluster 2nd edition is a solid Sci-Fi game set against an engaging universe. Its mechanics are easy to use and functional. The game text could use more summary & explanatory text to make it easier for the players to get into the game, but overall it is a good buy for player?s looking for some hard SF gaming focusing on the small scale stories of the peoples who make their way among the many worlds of the Cluster.
[Review edited to address publisher's comments]
LIKED: Interesting background, career system
DISLIKED: Lack of explanatory & summary text, sprawling layout used for tables.
VALUE: Very Satisfied
[THIS REVIEW WAS EDITED]
[3 of 5 Stars!]