I’ve recently finished reading two very different systems dealing with the science fiction genre. The first was Harp SF, a very dense, very simulationist game. I’ll be reviewing that one, soon. The other was the Savage Worlds Science Fiction Companion and, as you might guess if you know Savage Worlds, it was far less dense and far more focused on having fun than on getting every detail right. As happens often with Savage Worlds, I was left with a mild feeling of incompleteness when I finished the book yet also felt like I’d been given exactly the right amount of information and rules.
If you’ve read any of the three previous Savage World’s Companions, the format of this one will be very familiar. It starts with player character information, including ways to create player character races and a few races that are appropriate to the sci-fi genre using those rules. One of the most interesting of these examples is the insect aliens, who have both the mute and outsiders hindrances built into them. This combination seems rife for roleplaying opportunities for someone playing one in a mixed group. Another interesting choice are the Deaders which are sentient space zombies using the classic sci fi genre trope of space slugs controlling humanoid corpses. There is also a short section of both edges and hindrances specific both to the genre and to the rules presented later in the book.
Also for the benefit of the players is a pretty extensive list of high tech equipment with everything from stealth suits to cyber decks. The largest portion by far is the weapons section. Rules for almost any high tech weapon a person could want from vibro blades to rail guns is included and, just as large as the personal weapon section is the vehicle based weapons. Exactly how these can be used is unclear at first but becomes important later in the book.
There is a somewhat short section on genre specific rules, next. These include rules for various levels of gravity and atmosphere space exploration. For more terrestrial campaigns, cyber hacking and virtual reality rules are provided. This is far less intricate than other systems that include netrunning. This might seem like something of a flaw but is actually a good thing. There’s very little chance that a bunch of the players are going to be sitting around staring at each other while one player performs all of the interesting actions. In fact, the rules use a variation on the dramatic task system from the basic rules that have been well tested. For those looking for deeper rules for running the net, there is a hacking supplement to Savage Worlds that has already been put out is referenced.
And for those who run in the shadows, whether hackers or not, there is also a section on cybernetics. These take into account the traditional limits of losing humanity and putting too much strain on the human body to splice in machinery that will make the character superhuman. A number of different modifications are provided and each has a point cost that adds up to the strain possible. Interestingly, for a science fiction system there is no information for genetic modifications. The cybernetics rules could easily be converted to account for bioengineering as easily as cyber augmentation, though.
What follows after these basic rules are sections for some of the most important tech in a sci-fi campaign. Though they address a number of different areas, they each use the same basic mechanic. Each augmentation is measured by both cost and number of Mods needed to purchase them. And this is where that extensive list of vehicle class weapons becomes useful.
The first set of equipment that can be created by these rules are power armor. While it would not be possible to recreate any of Iron Man’s suits with these rules, it is quite possible to make the stuff Space Marines wear and, quite entertainingly, the exoskeletons worn by the soldiers in Edge of Tomorrow.
Next comes a very similar field though one that rarely shares a story with power armor: robots. While there is a player character race that are robots, the rules in the sci fi companion are vastly expanded from the android race offered in the Savage Worlds core rule book. The modifications in this section can be used either by a player to create fairly unique characters or by both DM’s and players to create NPC designs.
The power armor and robot sections have perhaps the least capacity to be interesting. This is largely because they have the smallest possibilities. Relatively humanoid in size, there is simply not enough room to logically cram too many modifications to the machines that can be made and, given that they are relatively narrow fields, they have the fewest options to select.
The next category is the largest and, therefore the most interesting section. The starship category is, understandably broad as it applies to anything from a single person fighter to an enormous colony ship. I spent a couple of hours putting together a fleet by modifying some of the sample ships and it was highly entertaining. It would probably be just as entertaining if I started from scratch and I could easily lose myself for hours in just making a ship of each size.
The next section is just as broad in its own way. As generic a description as “Starship” is, “Vehicle” is technically even more generic. After all, a Starship is a type of vehicle, so, theoretically, the section for Starships could legitimately be included in Vehicles. But in this case, it refers only to world bound devices. This is, of course, still a massive category as it can encompass anything from a hovercycle to the Helicarrier. In fact, there are modifications that allow for tracked and hover vehicles in addition to the wheeled variety as well vehicles that fly by propeller, jet and helicopter.
The final section that allows a game master and players to design their own pieces of technology are walkers. Personally, I would call them Mechs, but “walkers” works just as well. I suspect it is possible to make analogs of many of the mechs from Battletech and they range all the way up to super robots as big as 120 feet tall so even Mecha like the Gundam could be made. I am seriously tempted to use these rules to make Savage Worlds versions of all the Iron Tyrants.
A couple of nice things about all of these sections is that they are both universal and generic. The sizes of the machines from one section are pretty analogous to the sizes from the others and this comes through in the fact that power armor cannot be larger than size 3 and starships and walkers can be no smaller than size 6. The weapons from the equipment section are all the same sizes, in theory and take up the same basic amount of space whether mounted on a space carrier or a suit of power armor, and, of course, some of the larger ones are too big to be mounted on some of the smaller vehicles.
There is nothing inherent in any of the systems that would even imply a genre, though some of the modifications suggest ultra high tech. These can be ignored, or forbidden if a GM doesn’t want them to be incorporated in their game. A sidebar at the beginning points out that the system is fairly generic. It’s as easy to make one of the clean white flyers from Oblivion as the dingy, cluttered APC from Aliens.
These chapters were the ones that made me both excited and oddly disappointed. I was excited because one of the best parts of Savage Worlds is the inherent modularity and the fact that it is so easy to open the hood on the system and fiddle with the engine underneath. The only way they could have done more in this regard would be to not even bother giving us any rules. Providing rules without providing rules would be an impressive trick. But what disappointed me was that each of these sections was very short, no more than 4 or 5 pages at most. There simply didn’t seem to be enough of it to make a variety of interesting examples.
But it didn’t take me long to realize that it was exactly the right amount. Besides the beauty of being able to fiddle with the engine, the nice thing about Savage Worlds is that it’s powerful without being too complex. After just a little thought, it was obvious there are enough options in each section to make dozens, if not hundreds of designs without the rules being so detailed that they get difficult to deal with.
And if you’re lazy or just not interested in going through the trouble of designing any of these pieces of equipment yourself, each chapter includes some examples created with the rules. Even if you want to design your own, there the examples given can be easily modified without reinventing the wheel…or antigravity system, as the case may be.
After the completely non-random sections used to design different types of equipment, the next section, which allows a GM to completely randomly generate a world, is a nice change of pace. It is also quite appropriate and useful for what is needed. After all, while there should be a system that balances one warship against another there is little need to balance one world against another, and it would be difficult to do so in any case. Given the likely use for this section, something speedy and simple is much more useful than something where each portion needs to be carefully weighed and compared. This is the perfect system to generate a world when the characters’ ship has engine troubles and they need to land on the nearest habitable planet to fix them or if the players just want to waste time doing a bit of exploration before following your carefully crafted plot.
All the major aspects of a planet are addressed, including size, atmosphere, population density, social traditions and level of technology. While it’s obviously not enough to just leave the results alone when a planet needs to be generated, it is enough to give a strong enough framework that the GM could easily finish out the details in a hurry and create any number of interesting planets on the fly or even as inspiration for more fully rendered planets.
Also for the ease of the GM, the last third of the book is made up of short descriptions and full stat blocks for a variety of both sentient aliens and alien beasts. One of the better parts of this section is the trio of fleet examples that are given, including both typical crew members and the actual make up of the ships in the fleets. Though there is no firm setting in the Science Fiction Companion, these fleets, as well as the creatures given certainly imply a setting. And like many Savage Worlds works, the implied setting is surprisingly dark. There are many creatures in this section that would be almost at home in the Horror Companion as this one. Characters are as likely to find themselves avoiding having their minds taken over or their brains sucked out as in nail biting starfighter battles taking down a galactic empire.
The Science Fiction Companion, like the previous 3 Savage Worlds Companions is an excellent tool kit for the game. While it sometimes seem that the rules provided aren’t detailed or specific enough, fans of the system will quickly remember that the greatness of Savage Worlds is that it gives GMs and players a lot of depth without being overburdened by tedious details and specifics. The Science Fiction Companion is a great example of a supplement that opens up new vistas for players and GMs without placing any new shackles on them.