Thursday, 5 June 2014

Review: THE GAEAN REACH: The roleplaying game of interstellar vengeance

Review by Richard Williams

Published by: Pelgrane Press
Written by: Robin D. Laws

A no-frills gritty sci-fi adventure game using modified GUMSHOE rules and based on the fiction of Jack Vance.

The Gaean Reach satisfies most of my cravings for science-fiction adventure fun. While I will confess to being a devotee of space opera, something this game makes clear it is NOT, I cannot deny that I’m a typical Brit in my appreciation for cheap and gritty fiction.

Right from the start I found myself enjoying this publication. The writing style is fluid and easy to get along with while the layout is easy on the eye. The introduction makes it clear what this game is setting out to accomplish and what players should expect. I was surprised to find it said almost straight away that players will not find anything about space combat here and that space opera was not on the menu but rather a GUMSHOE adventure with a difference. That suits me down to the ground as I’m always happy to launch an investigation regardless of the setting, be it a Cthulhu death trap or dungeon based fantasy involving dragons in some way. While I’ve never read any Jack Vance novels (something I shall be seeing to in no great space of time) from what I can see here I’m not going to be disappointed as far as setting goes.

Once the introductions and basic outline are out of the way it launches into that old first chapter staple of character creation. I’m glad it does because this is the only area of the rules which gave me any problem and by discussing it first I can clear any misgivings early. What we have here is intended as a very basic character creation system, and I suspect it becomes much easier with practice, but I didn’t find it intuitive and that makes it complicated. It’s a multi-tiered process involving dishing out cards, trading cards, adding points, then swapping points, and various other elements which I can’t claim to have fully understood on just a couple of read-throughs. Like I say, I’m willing to bet that this is a piece of child’s play once you’re used to it, or see it being done, but on a simple reading of the text I find myself with questions. This is partly down to the way this book is written which, though lovely to read, can lose you a little in the prose. A crystal clear bullet point system of ‘do this then do that’ would have been a great help rather than sentences like “as they transfer the numbers, they can adjust them somewhat”. While that sentence is explained a little further on I’d have preferred it not being there at all.

Thank heavens for Skulduggery, a completely unrelated RPG, whose rules have been put to use here for an alternative ultra-simple randomised character generation. For some reason those rules are not included with the main character generating section but are found on page 75 under the heading ‘Scratch-Built Characters’. These rules work as a simple point-spend system and allow for a high degree of control of where those points are spent (making me ponder the supposed randomness of the ‘random character generation’).

With uncertainty over the character creation process put aside this rule book cracks on nicely. The next section moves onto the core mechanic of investigation and players accustomed to the GUMSHOE system will find themselves on familiar territory. Basically there are a number of skills which represent the different forms and specialisations of investigation, from knowledge of Anthropology (identifying artefacts from living cultures) to Scuttlebutt (gathering info from crowds and swapping gossip), and this list is very comprehensive allowing for just about any form of investigative approach. You want to beat the information out of someone? Fine. You want to work the bureaucratic system? No problem. Fancy getting the dirt out of someone with a wink and smile? Flirting’s the skill for you. Or perhaps you’re the scholarly sort who will study anything from rocks to rocket science? fret not, you’re covered.

On top of the investigation skills are the more generalised skill sets for everyday adventuring such as athletics, gambling, medicine, etc. which complements the other skills nicely and provides plenty of scope for a well-rounded adventure. Players should have no problem doing whatever they want and really personalising their character (which I suppose is as much a mission statement for any game as an observation of this one).
One element which was new to me, another borrowed rule, this time from The Dying Earth Roleplaying Game, is the ‘tagline’ system. Basically there are a number of phrases which are cut out and handed randomly to players by the GM. During the game the players are supposed to find a way to incorporate that phrase into their dialogues and if they manage to do this then they are rewarded by tokens. The better the phrase fits (rather than just jammed into a conversation awkwardly) the more tokens it is worth. Those tokens can later be traded for special perks. I like this system because it not only adds another way of rewarding players for good roleplaying but also keeps the game true to its source material. The words and phrases have been take from the novels by Jack Vance and by using them it helps to put the players more firmly within that fiction. It’s therefore ideal for games based upon books, TV, and film (or any pre-existing source material).

Moving on to setting notes and material for the GM I was pleased to see that details were plentiful yet succinct. Key groups, places and organisations are covered in short but informative sub-sections and while it is clear that a background knowledge of Jack Vance’s work would be beneficial it is not absolutely vital.
For the GM’s convenience there are also a number of opponent stats which have been pre-generated but while they are broad there isn’t a great number of them. In fairness this is partly down to the setting since there are no advanced alien civilisations within this work. If you’re talking to someone then that person will be a human. The only aliens you will encounter are animals and the examples given are generalised enough to be applied to almost any creature the GM might devise.

There are also a number of tips and prompts for the GM, an explanation of the ‘scenario’ method of adventure building as well as a sample scenario set-up. All in all, very handy indeed. Thrown in with all of that are alternative ‘frames’ for gamers to use. What is meant by this is that you don’t necessarily have to play a game of interstellar revenge but instead can play with other reasons for interplanetary gallivanting such as space trading.

As if all of this weren’t spoiling the GM enough already there is also an introductory adventure. Now I know that this isn’t exactly a ‘special feature’, par for the course, even, but it’s worth noting because while it might not be anything special to have an introductory adventure it can be a serious oversight to not have one.

The book concludes with all of the various sheets which are required so GMs can just print off and play. I was pleased to see how few sheets this actually entailed. The nature of the system means that there are no complex star charts or deck by deck ship stats to calculate or… well, almost anything else other than the character sheets and the cards for character creation (including the taglines).

So what to make of this PDF rules book? Aside from what I feel is a clunky character creation system I’d say this is a dead simple, easy to learn, quick to play science-fiction romp well worthy of a few evenings and weekends of your life. The information is, largely, well presented, the interior artwork is basic but appreciated and the layout sticks to the popular and easy to absorb chapter organisation.

But most importantly this book makes me want to play the game. As to whether or not you’d like it? Well, as one tagline puts it: “A true scientist would not hesitate to use his sense of taste”.