Saturday 6 August 2016

Starport Scum - Review

Starport Scum arrived in my inbox a few days ago and I have been fiddling with it off and on ever since.  An RPG-lite/narrative campaign wargame hybrid in the same vein as 2HW's 5150, it reaches for the "feel" of old school Rogue Trader and early RPGs whilst using newer mechanics.  A essentially simple ruleset, it is not aimed at the competitive crowd, but is well supported by a "build it yourself" toolkit and extensive tables for generating background and narrative.

It’s a PDF, so shiny factor is capped. Easy enough to read, but plain text pdf with little illustrations.  Art occurs as a random afterthought.  It’s easy to read as a regular Word document but it's evident you’re buying it for the content, not the polish.

It nails its colours to the mast early on in the rulebook: - you can’t complain as you know what you are getting: It’s a RPG lite or  wargame with RPG elements –  a game system with ways to create linked campaigns; generating backgrounds and stories to make battles interesting.  It’s about stories, and progressing with characters – not for competitive pick up games.

The fact a GM (while not required) is suggested gives you a broad hint as to the style of game, as does the fact it’s core rules are only 10 pages long, and the traits, gadgets, campaign rules and RPG-y stuff cover 70, of which about 30 are tables for randomly generating background and events. 

The intro gives ideas and advice for scales (6mm, 15mm, 28mm) and scenery.  While helpful, I’d perhaps relegate this to a modeling section at the end as it’s already 10 pages into an 80+ page book without the rules themselves in sight.   Honestly, most people buying indie wargames are familiar with the basics.
I'd like to play around a bit more with the hit percentages (5s and 6s hit, the amount of dice vary) and look at the lethality % as I'm not sure my limited playtime was representative. 
Disclaimer: As with most of my more recent reviews (in the "I have toddlers" era), this is me pushing minis around, tossing die and looking at rules with a critical eye, not an exhaustive series of test sessions.

There are regular goons (grunts) – usually in squads of 3-5; bruisers (better stats) aces  (have special rule or two as well as detailed background) and heroes (many special abilities, cinematically tougher).  There is no fixed coherency rules for squads but bonus movement encourages you to stick within 2” of each other in the traditional manner.

It's alternative activation, with players taking turns activating individuals or squads, but with a twist -  a player can hold (hand his turn over to another player) or “push” by trying to retain the initiative.  It’s an opposed roll, with modifiers for  leadership, casualties taken so far etc.  I used tokens to track activation and initiative.

An active mini may make one action (move, or fire, etc). Goons (and bruisers) may activate together as a squad if in coherency.  Heroes and aces act independently.  

Maximum movement is variable – 1D6” movement for isolated goons/bruisers; aces roll 2d6 and choose the highest; heroes roll 3d6 and choose the highest. 
However grunts in coherency get to roll 3d6 and  can move the middle amount, which gets rid of the rather “swingy” 1d6 – thus encouraging you to keep goons in fire teams.  Note you can move any distance up to the movement – i.e. your ace rolls a 2 and a 4 – thus he can move any distance up to 4” – he doesn’t have to move exactly 4”.   The variable movement shows the better combat awareness, morale and reactions of heroes, and perhaps grunts freezing up etc.  Pinned troops ignore/discard any 5s or 6s which I thought was a clever idea, and a 'swift' character might add +1 to any dice rolls.

There are rules for climbing, breaching, dragging pinned allies etc, but my favourite was the “run, you fools!’ rule enabling extra movement dice to be rolled and bonuses added to the best roll. This is effectively a renamed “sprint” action but it results in the character being pinned afterwards (i.e. exhausted, drained stamina) which offers an interesting decision point.

Characters roll 2d6 (+ extra dice for aces and heroes) ; squads also get 2d6 but can get a bonus for extra members (i.e. one goon fires, the rest support him – a bit like Infinity).  Hits are scored on 5s and 6s.  If more ‘1’s than hits are rolled, it’s a fumble and enemies get a free reaction shot in return (there is an optional fumble table for more cinematic possibilities).  A single hit pins the enemy, and 2+ hits do damage.

If the target has armour, at long range or is in cover etc it may roll various amounts of dice to “save” damage – each 5 or 6 negating a hit. 
If 2 or more hits remain, most characters go down, and heroes are wounded.
If 3 or more hits remain, heroes are downed and everyone else dies messily.  This gruesome death impacts activation and morale.

A character who is pinned removes 1 dice from action pools (such as firing) and also discards any 5s and 6s on movement dice.  Pins stack, but not on heroes.  Squads may elect to spray-and-pray - each hit is assigned to a different target, closest first – which means lots of pins on a bunch of foes rather than one guy copping it in the neck.  Individuals may "unload" with a similar suppressive effect.

I was a bit confused by the “hard to spot” rule – from a difficult-to-see character emerging from cover? – the firer needed a 3+ or 5+ to engage depending on whether it started its turn in the open or not.  Whilst I like the idea (troops running around a corner surprising enemies, etc) I wasn’t sure exactly how or when this would be implemented.  For those of us without a GM, clarity is important. There are familiar blast weapon rules (using a 2” AoE) with a table of cinematic fumbles on a 1 roll.

Melee combat works similar to shooting – the attacker rolls 2+ d6 scoring hits on 5s and 6s.  Again, if more 1’s than hits are rolled it is a fumble and the defender gets to strike back; other wise he is pushed back, pinned (1 hit) or damaged (2+ hits), and the defender can use armour to save hits.  The pushed back/pushed +pinned/downed reminds me of LOTR for some reason. 

There are rules for combat without minatures, but we’ll leave this to the RPG nerds.  I mean, we’re wargamers – playing with cool toys while making pew-pew noises is the whole point.

If anyone is downed (or dies gruesomely) your test morale; add up modifiers (such as casualties etc) to create a Fear score – if you roll equal or under it on 1d6, your morale drops from Okay to Rattled to Bottling Out (everyone legs it).

The weapons and gear section  did not have exhaustive lists like I expected; it is more a toolbox to allow you to stat out models by simply looking at their weapon.  Weapons are presumed to be “basic” (i.e. normal rifle/SMG firing semi auto or short bursts) with “tags” or special rules such as
“penetrating” – remove an armour save dice
“heavy” – cannot move and fire
“AoE” – have 2” blast radius
“weak” -1 dice if pool has 3 or more
These effects may have conditions attached to them.  E.g. “weak long range” might mean -1 dice at over 12”.
There isn’t a detailed weapon list (though there is one in the campaign section 40 pages later) – this is more a toolbox for designing your own and statting up random models by eyeballing them.

I’m not sure if I’m totally sold on this approach as it’s very much a special rules > stats thing.  It tries to be elegant and consistent  and perhaps it suits a game with a RPG vibe, but I personally find it vaguely irritating.   I can see why it is done this way – to provide a way to quickly turn a verbal description of the weapon of a random mini into rules: i.e. “I think this plasma rifle should not be able to move and fire – so I’ll call it HEAVY but I think it would have an AOE blast and it would ignore armour so let’s call it PIERCING as well. I think the damage would drop off quickly so let’s say it’s WEAK (-1 dice) at RANGE (beyond 12”).”

These are deployed instead of firing. Like weapons, they have a “what” and a “how” i.e. they may OBSCURE – the what -  and have SET UP (takes a turn to deploy) and DISTANCE (can be placed up to 12” away) – the how. You can see the intent is to provide a toolbox to translate a verbal description of something into in-game rules.  Drugs are interesting as not many games mention these and combat boosting drugs can act like a boost or “space magic” giving various effect. – they follow the same mechanics.

To generally do tasks, roll 2d6s  (more for heroes, etc) and if a 5 or 6 is rolled, you do the thing.  Complicated tasks might need 2 successes; dangerous ones might have penalties for failure.  There are also tables for resolving social situations and solving problems, undoing/unlocking things. It’s sensible as it covers most RPG stuff whilst being reasonably simple and straightforward. 

Traits are just special rules, that allow dice roll bonuses, or to automatically succeed or even attempt an unusual or difficult task. I.e. a sharpshooter might bet +1 to shooting when stationary; a hacker might be able to attempt to break into security when a normal character cannot.

Consistent with weapon and gadget traits, you have a “what”  (effect) and a “how” (when/how).  For example the effect (hacker) might have to be (static ) and within 12”range (12”) to function.  As usual, there are example of how to build your own traits rather than an exhaustive list. (Though there is a sample list of ~40 traits later in the rules)

There are a dozen or so example alien races which fit most sci fi tropes. 
There are tables (I predicted this) for random group composition, as well as three (!) for establishing backgrounds as well as starting gear and assigning traits.  There’s a sample list of 40 traits which you may prefer to default to if you don’t want to create your own. 

As usual there are random generation tables for establishing the narrative, tables for determining your next adventure, tables for injuries, rules for leveling up (basically, if you take out a superior opponent you gain a level i.e. a goon that takes out an ace becomes a bruiser) or gains a trait.  There are tables for recruiting, for world events to create a “backdrop”, a table for randomizing battles, and even a table for adding complications to battles.

There are 8 or so missions, each of which come with (naturally) their own table. 
Missions have various “HEAT” levels which is the size of the enemy force relevant to the player group.  High heat will bring more numerous and more powerful opponents – low heat means you will outnumber and outclass your opposition.   There are tables to detail your opponents, and establish any special weapons.  There are tables for the loot your gain, and any bounties on opponents.  There are rules (and tables, naturally) for barter and exotic items.

There’s a list of common weapons and gadgets which is handy and probably should have gone near the design-your-own section. There is also a list of random NPC monsters which probably belongs back in the “alien races” section? – these scary beasts may be part of the mission or act as their own side (no rules for random movement though?)  There’s a table for casual encounters (and one for space variants) and people you might meet, as well as a quest system for linking encounters.

We like tables – do you like tables, too?  At this point, the table mania becomes evident: there is a section merely comprising of useful tables for “fleshing out” the game world – they cover corporations, political groups, factions, patrons, worlds, space stations, colonies, local and sector problems, conspiracies, paranormal powers, and even local news headlines. 

My Random Thoughts
I know intent was to make a toolbox, and show “how” rather than tell “use this”  but I suspect many would prefer better lists of weapons and gear. I think it would help to shift the design-your-own section to later in book – keeping  core rules as “how” to play only, not how to build the weapon/gadget.  Overall, I wasn’t sold on the layout –  some things are not where I feel they belong – the reading experience was a bit random and RPG-y  - so you have to hunt around a bit. It’s only 80 pages but lack of art makes it quite dense.  Given it’s “toolbox” nature, there’s quite a bit of pre-game prep – like Battlefield:MMW, it took a while to get playing.

I’m not saying you can’t use it for space fantasy blob monsters, (I don’t dismiss it as “Vietnam in Space”) but I felt there is a definite leaning towards human 15mm sci fi of the harder Traveller/Firefly variety.   It harks back to the Laserburn and Rogue Trader era and while using different mechanics has a similar “vibe.” 

Coincidentally, the alternative activation-with-chance-to-retain-initiative and the only-one-action-per-turn mechanics mirror some game design articles I've recently done on the subject.

For me, it is a direct competitor to the Two Hour Wargames 5150 series; without the solo-friendly  2HW reaction mechanics but a heck of a lot more accessible in general and far easier to understand and use.    

Wow, that was a wall of text.  To summarise some key thoughts:

+ Lots of tables to describe everything from local headlines and politics to the specific weapons on a given NPC
+ Dig up and stat out your old random minis
+ Has old-school RPG feel to it
+ Focus on narrative – fits the 2HW genre while being easier to play
+ Actual rules are easy and simple to remember; ideal for this genre; rules themselves quite solid
+ I particularly liked the activation, gruesome deaths, coherency, and “flee you fools” rules

-/+ Toolbox > Lists (shows how you might, rather than tells how you must) may may appeal to some, but turn off others
-/+ Emphasis on descriptive special rules may/may not be your cup of tea
-/+ Very loose; it could be a oral RPG as much as a wargame

- Layout and art a bit sub-optimal; it’s a bit disorganised
- Though not at all necessary, you’ll probably need a GM to get the best out of it; not all situations were clear
- Fairly unstructured - if you’re not creative, you may not enjoy it; it’s not ideal for “pick up and play” and does not even attempt balance or a points system

You’ll like it: If you enjoy narrative to make games meaningful, are a bit of a RPGer, and found the 2HW games a bit incomprehensible. If you’d like to dig out old minis, and like the idea of a rules set being a toolbox for making adventures rather than a way to compete with randoms you meet at the club.  If you are a scenario guy rather than a metagame-the-points-system guy.

You’ll hate it: If you want a balanced pick up game to play with friends, with tight, competitive rules, where every possibility and situation is catered to in the rules.  If you don’t like traits, special rules, or fussing about before or after the game. If you prefer rules to have neat, prescriptive lists rather than Pirate Code "guidelines".

Recommended:  Yes.  I think Starport Scum has a definite “flavor” which will appeal to some and not others; but it is quite clear  from the start about what it is trying to be – a RPG-wargame hybrid for creating narratives rather than a competitive points-based pickup rules set.  It compares favourably with its closest competitor (5150) as it is much more accessible. 


  1. I agree with what you say about a ready list of weapons; it almost put me off to have a game becuase of that. I rahter have an extensive list of weapons to choose from and then a how to design new ones.
    I also think the ruleset it's a bit pricey...

    1. Having to stat up weapons as well as models does detract a lot from the "pick up and play" aspect.
      I suspect more ready made weapon and equipment lists are in the pipeline, though.

      I've noticed many indie authors tend to release things in "chunks" to keep rule sizes manageable (although in this case, probably it should have launched with more)

      I tend to limit my pdfs to anything $10 or less. For example, I've been eyeing off Demon:Descent for wargaming ideas (I like the matrix/technognostic vibe) but at $25USD (~$35AUD)that's the price of a hardcover reference book....

  2. There will be more weapons later on. We might have been a bit too cautious on the first round.

    There's 10 pre-made guns (if I remember right) but more is always handy.

  3. Can I have permission to use this quote from above to define my own personal take on playing wargames?

    "I mean, we’re wargamers – playing with cool toys while making pew-pew noises is the whole point."

    Perfectly summed up. Just for my personal blog. Nothing money- making. If you're cool let me know how to best credit the quote.