Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Thousand Suns Readalong Chapter 1: A Primer

Okay, cue up Thus Spake Zarathustra and let’s open this bad boy up! This book is dedicated to Marc Miller, Loren Wiseman, and Dave Nilsen. You could do worse than that! Frank Chadwick is conspicuously absent from that list, though. I immediately take that as a cue that this game will not go down the path that took root with Striker, that grew like crabgrass in MegaTraveller, and that went to seed in Fire, Fusion, & Steel. This is a game that from the get go is refusing to take even a hint of a step towards that terminal monster game carcinoma. Obviously, I don’t have the psionic powers necessary to read James Maliszewski’s mind; that’s just how it comes across to me at this point. (Remember, I haven’t peeked ahead, yet!)

The next thing I notice as I read between the lines of the introduction… it appears that the author wants to avoid the Scylla and Charybdis of space games. Players want a generic tool kit to make whatever space setting they want. But… if you leave them to build it from scratch, many gamers are liable to get discouraged at some point in the development process. This is what happens to a lot of potential GURPS players. Traveller started life as toolkit that had sort of an integrated implied setting, but was soon overtaken and consumed with the development of the Third Imperium setting. No one can officially add anything to the game anymore without doing some serious research. The author’s solution is to supply you only with a meta-setting. Is this just semantics? I don’t know, yet. If I understand him, it’s just going to amount to a rough sketch, really with only a few worlds and species fully described. The Thousand Suns setting only exists as a running set of examples and a couple of chapters. It is explicitly not “official”.

The venerable ACTION TABLE from third edition Gamma World

The rules system for the game is 2d12, roll skill+attribute or less… with 2’s and 24’s being the criticals. That sounds pretty much like GURPS, but there’s more: in combat, your margin of success is your damage multiplier. That’s right… there’s going to be the slightest hint of Third Edition Gamma World in this game! You know… if there’s no wa-hoo in your space opera, why should anyone bother, really?! This may be a clue that Thousand Suns is going to be more expressly game-like in some areas than either Traveller or GURPS.

The author ends the chapter with a note assuring us that this one book is all we need, and that even if more rules get written for the game, the rules are never going to become the focus. You know… this sort of thing rubs me the wrong way a little. I mean… you’re explicitly giving us only 10% of a setting. If you’re going to write a new game, can’t you come up with some rules for us, man? Well, rules in a role playing game just aren’t the same thing as rules in a game like Ogre, CAR WARS, BattleTech, or Starfleet Battles. The players need to know enough that they can plan and make informed decisions… and in play, there is so much that has to be ruled on the fly that people are going to ignore anything that slows the game down anyway. Even GURPS is just one giant collection of organized and indexed optional rules. I am probably alone in the OSR community for taking exception with this attitude.

Still, it’s clear that the author has an extremely broad familiarity with role playing games in general. He is careful with his choice of words and his pacing… and I haven’t seen a single typo yet. The illustrations are very understated– they’re not tacky or obtrusive. The fact that they have a hand drawn look lends them a warmth and familiarity that is very inviting. I’ve often wished that the creativity within the Old School Revival could be married to the professionalism I see at Steve Jackson Games. I might yet get my wish in Thousand Suns. We’ll see!

See you back here tomorrow for chapter two!

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5 responses to “Thousand Suns Readalong Chapter 1: A Primer

  1. RogerBW January 4, 2012 at 8:08 am

    I obviously have more sympathy than you with the Monster Game – for example, I’m a big fan of GURPS Vehicles (which certainly fills the same niche as Fire, Fusion, and Steel). Not because I want to re-create vehicles from some other setting, but because I want the vehicles in my setting to be consistent with each other and the tech base.

    The design process for This Dim Spot an example of this approach. I started with a tech base: TL9, no superscience except the FTL drive. I looked up specific impulse figures and pulled an FTL distance out of me head, and realised I’d need a TL10 space drive in order to get PCs from one mission to another in only a month or two. Fair enough; it’s new and experimental. But what do warships look like in this setting? I threw together some designs in GURPS Spaceships and fought them against each other until a workable doctrine emerged. Sure, I could have made those things up, but having wargamed some engagements meant I could justify why ships were designed a particular way, and what their strong and weak points were.

    The simulations also threw out something I hadn’t foreseen, which turned out to be really quite handy: if you don’t have superscience force shields, it doesn’t matter how heavily armoured you are, nuclear missiles are still Bad News (that particular system makes them quite hard to shoot down). In equal-tech ship-to-ship duels, humans mostly want to capture each other’s ships, so they use other weapons; but when they come up against the ultra-tech (but still non-superscience) aliens, they actually have a weapon that can potentially allow them to win an engagement!

    My point in all this is: the players never saw a spaceship design sheet. I told them travel times and engagement odds when they asked. (They were grunts, not ship crew.) But because I had those hard underpinnings, I could answer all the awkward questions when they posed themselves (like “if the hyperdrive blows up, which bits of the ship are near it to be damaged”).

    But back to Thousand Suns. The dedication I find most interesting is to Anderson and Piper – which says to me that I should expect a fairly wild ride, with a lot of strange planetary environments, but usually with a fair attempt at a physical justification. It also suggests that aliens will be either rare or people – i.e. not just the Faceless Alien Foe. Let’s see how much that’s borne out.

    An advantage to the full setting treatment approach is that it allows you to turn out an endless line of supplements. The downside of a meta-setting is that, wherever a question isn’t answered, the GM and players have to come up with something – which may turn out to be answered differently by the next supplement that comes out. Of course, if you’re not planning to produce setting supplements at all, that’s fine…

    I’m fairly surprised to see “2d12” mentioned without explanation. Yes, gamers know this by now. Are non-gamers expected to work it out? Are they expected to read this game at all?

    -4 to +4 on a 2-24 scale seems like a much narrower range of modifiers than -10 to +10 on a 3-18 scale. I realise the 2d12 distribution is less peaked in the middle than 3d6, but this is suggesting that there’s going to be a lot more luck and a lot less task-difficulty determining how well you do at something.

    Hooks may turn into Fate-like aspects – how do they interact with raw stats? I guess we’ll find out.

    • jeffro January 4, 2012 at 9:05 am

      A monster-game design system is a resource for referee’s that want to do serious world building. Although they look superficially similar to design-a-thing games like CAR WARS, there often isn’t a playable micro-game at the other end to run the results through. Traveller had an extensive collection of micro-games folded into its ruleset, but the implied setting of the games was not necessarily the same as the canonical setting. Those are the two areas where CAR WARS really shines, in my opinion, but (obviously) most game masters aren’t as concerned with that sort of thing as I am.

      Hey… it sounds like you’re reading along with me. Awesome!!

  2. peteresl January 4, 2012 at 4:02 pm

    Even GURPS is just one giant collection of organized and indexed optional rules. Yeah, it has the reputation of being either a hyper-realistic mess with 10,000 rules or totally gonzo “You can be a psionic toaster” mess. But always a mess with too many rules. I think you sum up GURPS pretty accurately there.

    And I’m enjoying reading this. Thousand Suns is on my want list, but I rarely run or play sci fi games so I’m not sure I should expend the money on it or not. It’s nice to get a good peak inside so I can decide.

  3. Robert Saint John January 4, 2012 at 5:30 pm

    I think you’ll like the meta-setting approach. IMO it adds just enough flavor to the game for the reader to say “Hey, I could build something like Asimov’s Foundation or Anderson’s Terran Empire here, or better yet mash up the bits I like with my own stuff”. To me, it reads like a promise from JM that “This is not going to be the Third Imperium, and no one is ever going to be able to tell you that you can’t do that because such-and-such wasn’t available until 1102 when so-and-so was assassinated.” But there are enough tools in the game that it supports a sandbox approach to SF gaming, and I don’t think there’s much chance of running into brick walls like, “Okay, what do we do with this?” or “How can I add in something on the fly?”

  4. John E. Boyle October 21, 2016 at 12:05 am

    Seeing Poul Anderson and H. Beam Piper in the dedication struck me as well; two of my favorite authors being mentioned up front like that is definitely going to affect how I look at these rules.

    Quoting text from books by Anderson, Piper, Bester and Herbert is a nice touch to start off each chapter.

    Going to have to look over the D12 system rules though. That margin of success being the damage modifier (along with the absolute max damage limits) should make combat interesting.

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