While I wasn’t expecting a one-to-one port of LotFP to sci-fi, with lazer swords and plasma crossbows and psion-elves, I was at least expecting MotSP to keep what I saw as the coolest innovations and themes of Lamentations. This included the character-sheet based encumbrance system, the strong focus on human characters, the weird and disturbing magic, and a general theme of survival horror that is the hallmark of LotFP adventures.
That is (mostly) not at all what Desborough and Phoenix created.
I was expecting Saturn 3 and ALIEN and Pitch Black and the ’72 Soviet Solaris. Not really my bag beyond one-shots and the like.
But that’s not what we get. What we get is something more like Buck Godot: Zap-gun for Hire meets Barbarella meets Flash Gordon meets The Sword’s Warp Riders.
And that is totally my thing.
Now, this is not some giant stops-bullets book like Lancer. This is a “mere” 240 pages in a 6” x 8” paperback format. This is a construction-set of an RPG, very much like Star Siege or GURPS. However, unlike those two games, Machinations doesn’t really give two flips for balance. MotSP doesn’t pretend to know what your games are going to be about. Your game could be about blaster-slinging space cowboys, a team of highly skilled mercs taking on the most challenging jobs in a galaxy dominated by heartless megacorps, swashbuckling radium-cavaliers living and dying for honor and love, tomb-raiders cracking open the trapped vaults of the Elder Races, or super-powered psions staying one step ahead of the Psi-Pstasi. MotSP isn’t here to tell you how to play your game.
And so Machinations doesn’t lose much sleep in crafting a fully “balanced” experience. It’s very Old School in this respect. Sure, there are some nods towards niche protection, echoes from B/X D&D in what your character is good at and how quickly they go up levels and stuff like that. But there’s nothing stopping you from cobbling together a Frankenstein’s monster of abilities and powers.
Take, for instance, race creation. There are dozens (maybe over a hundred) options for racial characteristics you can use to build your character’s race. The list of race traits you can pick is 20 pages long and might be the longest single section in the book. They’re organized by theme, but you don’t need to stick with the theme; there’s nothing to stop you from taking the blob-creature’s ability to rip off chunks of itself and send them scurrying about as miniature versions of you, and combining that with the ammonia-based life’s slow metabolism ability and the reptile’s scales.
If you love lots of character options, this is your game. Want to craft a team of bizarre creatures who band together to bring peace to a fractious galaxy? Want the flexibility to build a tentacle monster with poor understanding of personal boundaries or a Space Pirate Amazon Ninja Catgirl who carves said tentacle monsters up into calamari? Want the challenge of crafting the ultimate mechanical bad-ass by pushing the rules to their limit and then hurling your creations into the deadliest dungeon the GM can devise to see who emerges victorious?
Machinations can do that.
And it doesn’t stop at race-building. While there’s relatively little customization in the four classes (Killer, Specialist, Scholar, and Psion), everything else oozes with customization options. For instance, each weapon category, from Small, One-handed Close Combat Weapons to Rifles/Shotguns is further divided in what amounts to a Small, Medium, and Large category. On top of that, you can pile on the added modifications, from concealable to larger magazines to a selector for different damage types to “vicious” levels of damage. In short, there’s no list of races with pseudo-clever names like Ignians and Reptiliods, or guns like ARES Predator Mk II or AK-97. What we get instead is a fun tool kit you can use to build your own universe.
Want to build the ZF1 from Fifth Element with the net launcher, poisoned arrows, rocket, flame-thrower, and “all new ice-cube system?” Yeah, Machinations can do that, too.
As you’d expect from something built on the LotFP chassis, the mechanics are a mish-mash of stuff. We’ve got D&D 3.x’s d20-roll-higher for attacks, LotFP’s d6-roll-under for skills (of which there are many more in this game) 5e’s a-save-for-ever-stat and your choice of roll over or under for saves. Your poor dice won’t know which way to go!
And on top of that we’ve got psionics (complete with a randomly chosen “witch’s mark” that can either be a (usually pretty weird) boon or bane), a wide array of cybernetics (which can cause psychosis if you take too many), and vehicles ranging from one-person bikes up to space battleships.
What surprises is the stuff left out. Most especially, encumbrance. Not even mentioned. Ditto for logistics; ammo is managed by saving throws (you need to reload when your weapon fails its save) and most tech doesn’t appear to need recharging of any kind. The cigarette-pack standard-energy-clips of Star Frontiers are nowhere to be found here. Because it’s Desborough, we do get some rules for dealing with exposure to vacuum or radiation (that doesn’t include a mutations table), but the guidelines for generating planets are all about what sort of adventures you can have on them, rather than orbital radius or axial tilt.
The result is a rules-lite, cinematic game that you could go beer-and-pretzels with but has enough heft to it for long-term campaign style play. Don’t play it if your group isn’t united in their goals; munchkins can craft real curb-stompers from the race options while your story-gamers will devise original and shocking personalities that are mechanically incoherent.
But do play if you’re looking for something flexible and not very demanding. You can pick up all the mechanics in an afternoon and you can craft your first adventure over a lazy weekend (be sure to give yourself time to create gear and aliens and maybe a ship or two). If you and your players love sharing world-building responsibilities, you’re going to love all the options available to you. And if you instead want to keep firm control over the setting and factions, it’s easy enough to build a cheat-sheet for the players and some pre-made races and go to town.
In short, it’s as flexible as B/X and possibly even more rules-lite. Character creation isn’t as quick but offers greatly expanded variety. If you’re looking for a science-fantasy rules set to craft your own fun on, check this game out.