The Hellion-class heavy cruiser Cerberus took flight Friday night as my gaming group put the Battlestar Galactica RPG through its paces. As I wrote in my earlier Game Day column, the players took on the role of members of the Hellfire Aces, an elite squad of Marines and pilots attached to the Cerberus, a decommissioned cruiser brought back to life after the genocidal Cylon attack on the Twelve Colonies.
Their mission was to investigate an icy world lightyears from the Colonies in search of clues that would lead them to the Gates of Hell, a prison world where the Lords of Kobol exiled Phobos, the son of one of the Lords and thousands of his followers. The crew of the Cerberus hope that by finding the descendants of this exiled Lord, they might also find the weapons they need to defeat, or at least drive back, the Cylons.
The session went well — we were able to complete the entire adventure, which isn’t something I can always say of Dungeons & Dragons 3.5, particularly when combat is involved. The role-playing mechanics built into the game were excellent, but the combat rules gave our d20-centric brains some trouble, and might just be too fast and deadly for my group’s tastes.
- The game uses a tweaked version of the Cortex rules that first appeared in the Serenity RPG. At the core of these rules is the concept of Plot Points, tokens players can spend to buy dice to help them with rolls, soak damage, or modify the story. Plot points make for a great mechanic for promoting role-playing at the table, as well as character-risk taking.
- Plot points transform the way you think about completing tasks — do your put all your plot points into getting off the perfect pistol shot, or do you save points to avoid attacks or damage in the self-same combat? It also provides players with a way of saying “yes, my character is this good … and here are the points to prove it.” Luck still plays a part — you could still miss a roll even after playing Plot Points, but it gives players more control.
- Assets and hindrances good hooks for players and GMs to hang role-playing ideas on.
- Systems really encourages creative play as characters spend plot points to modify plot in minor, and occasionally major ways.
- The rules fit the action and spirit of Battlestar Galactica well, but perhaps occasionally too well given the lethality of combat.
- The system is more mature in its second outing (e.g. the ability to buy traits and hindrances at graduated steps, rather than simply major or minor as is the case in Serenity) and the book is more complete: there’s an extensive example of combat, a comprehensive index, and a character sheet.
- As we saw in the Star Wars: Saga Edition, combat is fast. That’s a good thing, but it’s possible for combat to move too fast, meaning that the combat is over in 2-3 turns, leaving some people feeling as though they didn’t get to do enough stuff. Granted, we’re coming from a d20 D&D perspective, with its super-complicated, super-detailed combats, but I think it’s a legitimate complaint.
- One thing that likely sped combat up too much during the playtest was my literal interpretation of the 3-action rule, which is, ahem, really more of a guideline. The idea is that at most, you can do three things in a 3 second rule, but exactly what you can do is largely left up to the game master.
- Being in a d20 frame of mind, I let almost everyone have three actions. And unlike the GenCon event I played, my players tended to use those actions for attacks, which could have devastating consequences. A better way to play the 3-action rule is to basically assume everyone gets two actions, with perhaps a third for reactions.
- The rules don’t help in this regard because they don’t give enough examples of actions. E.g. is drawing and throwing a grenade one action or two? Sniper-rifles are bolt action; is that an action to reload after firing, even with a clip? In hind sight, the answer to both of these is “yes, two actions” but it’d be helpful if the rules spelled things out. Savage Worlds, also a rules light system, was able to do this without bulking up the rule book.
- Even played more conservatively, and even with plenty of Plot Points in play, combat is going to be very deadly. It may be too deadly for those looking for a more heroic, less gritty/brutal Galactica. What works well on the screen (for example, hideously powerful Cylons who can cut down a squad in no time) may not work nearly as well when players are running those self-same characters.
- The opening space combat featured two Vipers escorting a Raptor down to the planet and fighting off two Cylon raiders. The combat went too quickly because the players were lucky, and the raiders — without skills of their own — were too easy to fight. Throwing in another three or four raiders would have made things more interesting.
- I should have included a more intense, ad-hoc physical challenge. The existing one had players trying to cross a ravine on an ice bridge that was then destroyed by a Cylon traitor. I should have played up the icy terrain, and given some of the non-combat scout characters more to do.
- My final combat was ended by a deus ex machina maneuver in which players are saved from the Cylons by an artifact of Phobos. In hindsight, it should have been a more pitched battle, with players struggling to fight off the attacking Cylons while one or two others struggled to activate the defenses found in the cathedral. That might make it a little more Stargate and a little less Battlestar but the players would have had more fun.
- The Major, the leader of the group and an honorable, duty-bound man, is too bland and needs another role-playing hook for players to work with. Perhaps Addiction (Cigars) to go with the stogie he had packed away.
- As game masters and players, we need to stop being so literal. By their nature, non-d20 rules leave more open spaces for players to fill in. It’s a good idea to err on the side of players.
- And finally, after having played Battlestar, I can’t wait to play Savage Worlds with my group. I think it’s going to have just the right mix of role-playing incentives (its own kind of Plot Points called bennies) and fast combat rules to make for some really memorable games.