Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Strange Stars

Strange Stars
Trey of Sorcerer's Skull has put out another book, though not the long awaited follow-up to his pulp/fantasy 1920's Americana setting book Weird Adventures.  While Trey's most recent book is system agnostic, even more so than Weird Adventures, it is a sci-fi setting book, much larger in scope then Weird Adventures that offers a combination of pulp Buck Roger's style Space Opera and more contemporary post human sci-fi - something a bit like Glenn Cook's "Dragon Never Sleeps" or the Culture novels of Iain M. Banks. There appear to be plans to release some likely free rules for Strange Stars using both FATE (written by John Till of FateSf) and Stars Without Numbers, which is my personal favorite OSR sci-fi ruleset (it's a B/X mod, and very excellent).

Alternate, unused Strange Stars covers
As a product Strange Stars maintains a very high quality, with a great deal of excellent art (so much that it sometimes overwhelms the writing), good design and a very polished appearance uncommon in small press or solo publications. The content within provides a sweeping view of a game universe that is a standard enough science fiction setting, with some interesting tweaks and changes.  Nothing as bold as Weird Adventures, but then the fictional ground of galaxy sprawling space opera is a lot more well-trodden then that of 20's fantasy pulp (which I think is limited to the Silver John stories by Wade-Wellman).  With this Constraint does a good job and is a fun read, though I wish it was a little less overarching and a little more narrowly focused on adventuring within the Strange Stars.  At the heart Strange Stars is a gazetteer, though not in a detail oriented manner that lists trade goods and populations.  The book lays out outlines for cultures scattered about in a mostly post-human space, provides a sense of history where the possibilities for adventure includes both ancient wreck hunting and space mafia schemes. 

Now I am not the target audience for Strange Stars, as I don't have a great desire to run sci-fi tabletop games (and if I did it would be some sort of totalitarian neo-Soviet human empire, with a good dash of the game Paranoia added), and I have a strong predilection for grim settings with a lot of black humor.  Strange Stars is a pulp setting, bent by a well honed sense of contemporary sci-fi, and as such it's fairly aspirational and hopeful.  This is a bit strange to say, because the scope of the Strange Stars universe is grand (far grander than Star Frontiers which Strange Stars at times consciously emulates in style - look at the cover) potentially on a scale equal to that of Warhammer 40K and makes references to all the horrors of Science Fiction - from militaristic alien slave empires, to brutal cybernetic pirate fleets and a spreading plague of intelligent machines.

While it may sound like I'm saying Strange Stars is 'light' or lacks depth, like Weird Adventures, there's a great many ideas behind it.  Each of the numerous planets, species (or human subspecies) within may only get a paragraph or two of treatment and a drawing, but there are plenty of great setting ideas concealed within - planets of ancient giant warring automatons, the gamblers that bet on them and the scavenger gangs that loot the fallen for alien technology as they reassemble is a personal favorite as are the assault troops of the alien slave empire, who are pure strain humans each linked symbiotically to a colony of hyper intelligent deep sea mollusks that forms space armor.  This one is just a lovely combination of Starship Troopers and Lovecraft's Deep Ones.

The last example above is also a good reference for Strange Stars tone.  It wears its influence proudly, offers up many potential scenarios with a horrific bent, yet somehow manages, with the injection of the pulp sci-fi ethos and 70’s futurist feel to present awful things in a playful light.   

How to Use Strange Stars
Strange Stars is a setting books, and doesn't aspire to be anything more (a game system, a collection of modules, a play aid).  While this might be frustrating to some readers the book sets out to do what it wants, and does it with style and good form.  Were one running a science fiction game Strange Stars could provide useful information, either as a full setting, or more likely as a source of some interesting adventure hooks and locations. While there is a cohesive whole to Strange Stars, and several galaxy wide plots (certainly each of the major polities has it's goals and plans) are hinted at, the setting is somewhat fragmentary, something that makes the book useful in home brewed settings, or other product based settings, especially given the episodic nature of science fiction games (party often moves from locale to locale or planet to planet where each locale is almost a different genre - as in Star Trek) to pluck locations, alien races and hooks from.

Example of Strange Star's design and interior art.
Otherwise, Strange Stars is just a pleasant read, and provides a nice guidepost for the level of quality that homemade game products can aspire to.  If one hobbyist (and the artists he brought on) can produce a product of this quality, there is no reason that the Small Press section of RPGNow should be clogged with terribly formatted retreads of classic module ideas and other amateurish attempts.

In all, while I am left somewhat at a loss for what to say about Strange Stars, it is a high quality product that could provide a good amount of inspiration and setting content for any Sci-Fi game. There is something breezy about it though, the art is so fecund, while the ideas are presented in a light way and this meant that it took me a couple of reads to really understand the amount of content within Strange Stars and the ways that it is both new and a very strong pastiche or homage to a variety of new and old science fiction works.

1 comment:

  1. Very nice review! Glad you like the Kuath: the human troopers in Cthulhu-y power armor. They have proven to be quite popular in the games we've run so far!