Reviews‎ > ‎

Starblazer Adventures

Starblazer Adventures (SA) is a massive book, the size of a telephone directory. I say this because it is the first thing you are going to notice, even if you download the PDF you are going to be thinking about how big this game is. There are some understandable reasons for this, after all one could not necessarily expect a series of later books and expansions to publish the game and the background material on Starblazer. However the size is also an indication of some of the problems that plagues the game.

It is big and frankly it is bloated. You have to remember that the sub-title of this game is “Rock ‘n’ Roll adventures in Space”. This strong statement runs against the grain of the contents of this massive book and causes most of the moans and complaints about the system that I have. If this is Rock and Roll is some monstrous Prog Rock epic that is dramatic, sweeping and seemingly endless and pointless.

About Starblazer

Starblazer was a science-fiction comic book series that ran parallel to the “True war stories” comic Commando. In many ways Starblazer ran the same stories as Commando only set in space. In some ways the better elements of the series mined the same vein as early 2000AD. I am going to assume that you are familiar with Starblazer as if you don’t know that much about the comics they are not really available any more and I am not sure that the game is really going to stand out amongst your own sci-fi preferences.

The Disconnect

For me Starblazer Adventures suffers from a massive disconnect from its source material that renders it pointless as a game.

Let’s start with characters; Starblazer characters were good at a whole range of things. You could expect them to be able to shoot a blaster, throw a punch, fly a starship and override a computer.

Not every character was capable of decoding ancient transmissions, tricking robots, repairing android limbs or calculating jump coordinates.

In the RPG the skills are too diverse or fine-grained. You have decide whether you are going to be good at dodging a blow or going first in a fight, flying a plane or a starship, a good liar or a good listener? They are frustrating choices that seem to undermine your conception of your character.

The FATE pyramid is good at ensuring that characters excel in a particular area. Your intergalactic stockbroker is going to be richer than my planetary playboy in a game mechanics significant way. It does however create a big game design problem as the pyramid runs the risk that if you do not have things near the apex you run the risk of underperforming. You have to think carefully about target difficulties and resolution mechanisms.

Bad dice

Here Starblazer Adventures scores another own goal, it uses a dice mechanic of the difference of two d6. Although there is some clustering around zero this mechanism leads to some pretty big swings in results. You need a +4 skill rating to reliably avoid flunking rolls, this means everything else in your pyramid can be subject to some pretty wild fluctuation.

Avoiding standard Fudge dice may have seemed a wise move in terms of avoiding barriers but this was always going to be a niche game and if you have someone willing to buy a telephone directory of book I do not think a new set of dice would have proved to be a significant barrier.

If the goal was to create a lot of drama by having oscillating fortunes then again I think it has failed to match the source material where the hero might suffer one or two reverses early on but generally the story was one of escalating scale of threat rather erratic ups and downs throughout the book.

Stunts of tedium

SA may have achieved one huge plus for FATE-based games, after this game I do not think it would be acceptable for anyone to produce such a long, messy list of Stunts that have been so poorly adapted for its background. SA sticks too closely to the Spirit of the Century format reproducing too many irrelevant stunts that could have been summed up as “add +1 to a Skill roll; add +2 to a Skill Roll once per session” or whose context is subtly altered between genres. Minions and Bases for example are actually different ideas in the Pulp and Sci-Fi genres.

It also suffers from bizarre restrictions on Stunts that often render them less than fun. A character for example with a lot of strength based feats found that he could only use them outside of combat or against inanimate objects. The result was that the right set of circumstances never arose to actually use them. This leads to a natural ditching of “useless” stunts, there are no restrictions on Skill bonuses so they are inevitably much more useful than the ability to hurl machinery across rooms on a Tuesday.

Outcomes of no import

One of the worst aspects of Starblazer Adventures are conflicts where you are trying to beat a defence roll. Due to the erratic nature of the dice you generally need a good roll and your opponent to have a bad roll for anything to happen.

Space combat particularly seemed to drag, shoot-dodge, shoot-dodge, shoot-take a Stress point. Often using an Aspect and a Fate point to achieve a narrative resolution was preferable to grinding out a mechanical decision.

It seemed to me that I was missing some rule that would force an outcome to each roll, perhaps something as simple as the contestant with the highest skill rating breaking a tie. I do not think I am reading this wrong it is genuinely a boring and long-winded system that tries the patience of gamers.

Is there anything right here?

Some of the things where the game strikes out on its own path do work better. The starship creation system is fun and utilises the Skill Pyramid to great effect to differentiate different kinds of designs. Aspects again are really the secret here as otherwise there would be a finite set of permutations, Aspects allow you to create things like the Millennium Falcon from a standard transport design.

I did also enjoy some of the games we played of Starblazer Adventures but I felt that was because of the ingenuity of the GM’s creations and also their liberality in interpreting the game worlds. I felt the game did show there is a gap for an action-based narrative-style science fiction game but these mechanics do not really succeed in providing it.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery

FATE is a pretty good system, it is hard to go that wrong when you use it as the basis of your system. Starblazer Adventures definitely gets a bit of a FATE halo around it. However it is hard to conclude anything other than it has stuck too slavishly to its ancestors when adopting the Spirit of the Century rules.

The big book is exhaustive but is ironically hard to read and difficult to search during play. As the system is often based on particular sub-systems instead of providing play principles you often find yourself needing to look up something like the rules for explosives or driving vehicles and finding them not in the skills section but spread over three different chapters (check resolution, skills and equipment).

So my overall feeling is that this is deeply broken game that if it is was ever playtested never really left the circle of people who understood the author’s intent or view of the Starblazer comics. The effort is admirable, the licensed material is niche but worthy but the result is unplayable.