Reviewing the PDF version.
I was really intrigued to see a product that made claims as dramatic as this one does for its ruleset. I was even more intrigued to see that Carbyne Jungle basically stakes out the same conceptual space as Starfinder, the game I currently run (and have done for the last three years). I'm going to be making a few comparisons to Starfinder -- within reasonable expectations, I'm not expecting an indie product to match Paizo's overall resources for production, for example -- as someone who might be tempted to run this system instead.
I can't rate this 3.5/5 on the system, but for the record, that's my actual rating. There's a lot about it that impresses and intrigues me, and I'm glad of the purchase on balance.
The ruleset is the main selling-point here, or at the very least is what initially hooked me.
I think there's a lot of very intriguing and elegant work here. One of the reasons I still run d20 systems is that they often provide scope for more varied playstyles at the table than, say, PbtA or narrative-dice systems that demand specific levels of improvisational skill and drama nerdery from player groups. Carbyne Jungle is laser-focused, so to speak, on this same mission:
- It makes very, very clear what character options are designed for which goals, it has an elegantly-desgined advancement system that blends the best of XP and milestone levelling systems and provides a clear sense of how pacing in campaigns should work, it eschews class-specific development trees for Backgrounds (which are something between what other systems would treat varyingly as Feats and Class Abilities), and it's replete with explicit advice at almost every stage for neophytes who might be overwhelmed by all this information.
- It features compact but very workable and complete combat and skill testing rules. There's none of the trendy OSR nonsense about how you should just ignore whatever rules you want in favour of arguing (uh, "negotiating") with your table. It's not precious about telling you what the rules are, who's responsible for what, and how rulings work.
- It has comprehensive equipment lists, and just as importantly it has transparent equipment-building rules which, like Starfinder, use character advancement to affect equipment costs, but unlike Starfinder are not packed away behind a black-box and often-inscrutable application of advancement to cost.
- It lists Backgrounds, Spells and similar things in vast tables which... I'm okay with that approach. It's a compact way of presenting a lot of info when you don't have infinite space.
- And of course, it has the "three interlocking kinds of rules" thing that distinguishes Tri-Forge. This aspect of things is a bit harder to grasp (I'm not clear whether playing Flip 'n Fight, Stock and Strategic rules in the same group would ultimately place certain players at a disadvantage, for instance), but I love the idea of being able to run Stock and Flip 'n Fight players at the same table. It's the kind of thing that could potentially reduce barriers to new players, which I'm all about.
- As a matter of personal preference, I'd rather that since the ruleset is the big selling point of this product, the basic F'nF, Stock and Strategic rules had been presented together right off the top instead of being distributed through the book.
- A much bigger obstacle to using this as a Starfinder player, though, is that this is a science-fantasy game that doesn't have specific rules for vehicle chases and combat, or for starship building, travel and combat. Maybe this is planned for a future supplement, or has already been released in one? But I have to give Paizo props for understanding that starships and vehicles are core parts of the sci-fantasy concept's appeal and that they belong in a core rulebook. Their omission here is regrettable, enough to keep me from running this system right now despite the virtues of its existing ruleset (whose advantages over Starfinder are nice but not dramatic enough in themselves to convince me to make the switch).
- It also lacks the kind of Environmental rules that help to sell a science-fantasy setting. This kind of thing could be easily improvised from what is there, but it would be preferable if they were supplied, or at least that means of building environments were part of the ruleset.
- I'm not 100% wild about the fact that the entry-level Flip 'n Fight system requires either purchasing decks or building your own for maximum effectiveness. The system's promise of three levels of sophistication in design should probably come with an explicit rider that one of those "levels" is basically its own deck-building game.
- Some examples-of-play content, especially as regards combined two or three different "levels" of play and rulesets, would go a long way toward selling the game's core ruleset appeal.
I'm including the Species element of character-building in this.
- The combination of core Species presented as character options are perfectly serviceable and sometimes quite fun.
- The setting itself is a pretty solid, if unspectacular, backdrop for space opera. I like the fact that a sharp contrast between Primal and other kinds of characters is part of the system. This is a very different call from Starfinder (wherein everything is so Made From Tropes that essentialized categories like these don't really matter much beyond character flavour), but it's a perfectly valid one.
- Most of the core Species are adjusted variants of fantasy races, with only limited departures from fantasy race stereotypes. Switching a few more of these out for truly alien races might not have been a bad idea.
- The setting of the "Carbyne Jungle," a kind of continent-wide Coruscant megacity, is kind of undersold given that the whole game's name is derived from it.
- A product that understands the power of tables as well as this one does should have some random-generation tables for planets and settlements. (Of course this would be more essential in a product that had space travel rules.)
Well-written, well-conceived, competently designed and with clean copy. Easy to read and follow.
- I've seen indie companies make better use of a production budget, TBH. If I can do better work formatting and laying out a document (which is almost the case here) it's not great, though not a dealbreaker.
- The quality of the art is highly variable. Some of it consists of very professional and vivid pieces (a few of which look curiously familiar but I'm going to assume were paid for), and some of it consists of low- to middling-competence pieces that were clearly generated in Poser or something similar. Less art with a more consistent style, paired with better layout, would go a long way toward selling the book's professionalism.
- Though a good writer (or writers) clearly generated the copy, it's just as evident that money was not spent on copyediting. It needs to be. Copyediting is not a frill, and if you have money to spend on art, you should be spending money on at least one copyediting pass.
Very promising and intriguing product packed with great ideas and fascinating rule design. With a bit more development, I think it could become really competitive in the sci-fantasy RPG space. I wish the developers well.