This kind of starship-centric game may not seem to be the kind of thing that would make it into a tabletop roleplaying product, but Spidermind Games were up the challenge. I spoke with Oliver Hulme and Jon Lunn about Spidermind, the Elite: Dangerous RPG and the excitement of blasting through the stars.
Hello, and welcome to Farsight Blogger! Please introduce yourselves and explain how you managed to fall down the rabbit hole into the wonderful world of tabletop gaming.
I’m Oliver Hulme, the Lead Writer of Spidermind Games. I’ve been playing roleplaying games for 3D12 years, and was suckered in with a combination of Fighting Fantasy and AD&D when I was about nine years old. In all that time I’ve been a player for only about two weeks and a GM for the rest of time.
I’m Jon Lunn and I am the producer for Spidermind Games. It was cake that got me involved. At school we were always allowed cake during break times on Tuesdays and Thursdays but only every one and only after we had queued up for what seemed ages in the cold and the rain. Not so for the D&D players who seemed to be showered in cake… well that was good enough for me.
Tell us about Spidermind Games; how did it come about, and what was the inspiration for the name?
Spidermind Games was created so I could have a reason to work together with Jon, and to fulfil a dream about being published. I create games and rule systems in my head even just walking down the road, so Spidermind has been a good way to channel that weird energy into something useful.
The name, Spidermind, was created by my long-suffering partner, Melanie, who has been roped into all my RPG playing and testing for the last decade, or so. I think she had a vision of an evil genius who created games to thwart his enemies. Our designer, Bruce, came up with the iconic image of the spider with a human brain. I particularly like that its mandibles look like a bow tie. He’s a clever man, is our Bruce.
Your most recent product is the highly anticipated Elite: Dangerous Roleplaying Game (EDRPG). Elite has an amazing history (I played it to death in the 1980s on my Spectrum) and the recent incarnation is epic on many levels. What's your history with the game, and what drove you to create a tabletop RPG version of it?
So we both played Elite on the original 8-bit computers, including the Spectrum 48K and Commodore 64. I think it was the first computer game that actually made sense while still being fun to play. By that, I mean that the spaceships you encountered in the game behaved like real people. Traders only bothered you if you attacked them, bounty hunters pursued you if you were a fugitive, the police would come to the aid of the innocent, etc. In other early 8-bit games it seemed like everyone was against you all the time.
Also, Elite was a role-playing game without dice, in the sense that it was always told from a first person perspective and you had agency to do as you wished. The first RPG I made about Elite was in 1988 – however, since I was only eleven it might not have the kind of ground-breaking mechanics you would expect these days.
In terms of why I bit the bullet and made a fully produced and licenced version of Elite: Dangerous – well, Frontier Developments (the producers of Elite: Dangerous) only have themselves to blame. About three years ago they began inviting licensing applications to companies that wanted to utilise the Elite: Dangerous brand. Jon and I saw the advert, kind of nodded to each other, and then gave up a lifetime of job security to plunge into the tabletop game market. I’ve no regrets, really. I think this is what I was born to do, and I’m just horrified it took me so long to realise it.
|The original Elite|
Elite the computer game is 100% about the starships, so what were the challenges in including the character-driven human element into EDRPG?
Well, on the one hand, there was a lot to do. Clearly the mechanics of human combat had not been explored in Elite: Dangerous at the time we began writing. Ironically, though, the types of equipment available for spacecraft give a writer a strong indication of the types of technology that exist in the game world. I already knew there were pulse and beam lasers, as well as cannons, rapid-fire ballistic weapons, missile launchers and explosives. It made sense that this technology also existed on a personal scale.
In terms of everyday interactions and how the galaxy actually functions, fortunately there are lots of references. Frontier Developments created a world-building guide for the universe as part of their development of the game. As one of the licenced authors I was given access to it, and it really is fantastic, explaining all about the medicine, transport, governments and everyday lives of people. In addition a number of licensed books had been released by the time I was working on the RPG, and these very much helped me get the flavour of the living worlds beneath the spaceships.
What amount of freedom were you given to create your own material and content for the Elite setting? Did you find working with the license constricting?
It was quite interesting, really. Frontier Developments began on a strong note, wanting to see everything that was written and to check it for accuracy. As the project went on, and they began to trust us more, they became less stringent. I think the guiding factor for us was less a fear of upsetting Frontier, but more about getting the essential facts about the Elite: Dangerous universe correct. Fans of the computer game would tell us off for the rest of time if we got the lore wrong.
Eventually Frontier decided on a non-lore licence, which basically meant that, in terms of canon, the events and descriptions in the computer game would take precedence over what was written in the RPG. That didn’t mean that we were suddenly off the hook. We wanted to make the game as lore-accurate as possible. But the non-lore licence did give us all the room we needed to spontaneously create enemies and technology that didn’t currently exist. It was a matter of being respectful the hard-science lore of the main work when creating new work.
For instance, many of our wheeled vehicles are based off the Frontier-developed SRV (Surface Reconnaissance Vehicle), a type of moon buggy, ruggedly presented with flexible suspension, jump jets and large wheels. Creating other types of wheel-based SRV’s, transports and gangland battlecars involved taking existing elements from the SRV in the computer game. It helps that our lead artist, Kevin Massey, has a phenomenal eye for the little design details in Frontier’s work, and is able to echo those design philosophies in his artwork throughout the book.
Tell us more about the mechanics and the reasoning behind them; I imagine combining the character side of things and the starship elements was somewhat challenging.
I had one over-riding rule when making the rule system: it had to be fast. Once I had created a basic design I went back through it and stripped back more and more to make it faster, faster, faster!
In the 80’s I think so many of us were overjoyed we got to use guns and laser beams in RPG’s that we forgave anything. But the agony of waiting your turn while someone else spent five minutes calculating their weapon attacks and positioning used to drive me mad.
I decided on two inspirations for EDRPG that would drive the game onwards. The rapid-fire spaceship combat of the computer game needed to be emulated, and the phaser-slapping, karate-chop antics of Captain Kirk needed to contrast it in personal combat.
For spaceship combat I decided to replace precise positioning in space with a combination of different manoeuvres that you could undertake depending how far away from the action you are. Essentially, in space combat there are two zones – up-close and at-distance. When you are up-close the lasers and bullets are streaming past you, and you can see the ships attacking you at visual range.
You can try to dogfight an opponent like a space Spitfire, drop mines, fire turrets, or rely on real-world physics to spin around and shoot your pursuers, like a Babylon 5 space fighter. Or you can try to bug out and recommence an attack at-distance. When you are at-distance you can joust, strafe, snipe – or even try to play a game of chicken with your opponent, threatening to ram right into them! By replacing fixed measurements of distance and speed with just a general sense of whether your opponent is near you or far away, you can do away with a lot of the time-consuming measuring that tends to go on with most spaceship battle systems. It’s fast, and more than that, it feels very close to the kinds of battles you end up in with the computer game.
For personal combat there is a sort of virtuous triangle between ranged, melee and fist fighting combat. Ranged combat does the most damage, fist fighting inflicts the most debuffs, and melee combat provides you with the most attacks. It’s not that these fighting forms are equal – most people prefer guns in combat for good reason – but those who specialise in close combat can really ruin a gun-fighter’s day. To go back to my Captain Kirk example, phasers are pretty deadly in combat, but get Kirk up next to his opponent and he’ll send that weapon skittering into the dust. To reflect this idea in EDRPG, close combat fighting attacks have an automatic chance of disarming someone as part of their damage roll. This is because the first thing anyone tries to do when wrestling with a gunman is get that gun away from them. It’s such an automatic action that it doesn’t require the player to do anything special – basically if they inflict an even amount of damage with a punch or kick they will knock the weapon out of their attacker’s grasp. Because this mechanic is built into the damage dice roll it saves a good deal of time. This is, obviously, just one example, but hopefully it demonstrates the kind of thing EDPRG does.
Let's say that I'm a fan of the computer game but haven't touched RPGs before, or I do play RPGs and I'm in two minds about EDRPG. What is it about the tabletop game that you think would persuade me to dive in?
If you’re a fan of the Elite: Dangerous computer game you’re going to feel at home here. You can build and modify your spaceship in the same way as the computer game, and your combat choices – jousting, dogfighting, strafing, flight-assist-off, etc. – are going to feel very familiar. You’ve probably already got a backstory for your commander in your head. Well – now you can get out the cockpit and negotiate your own contracts, break into corporate bases, rescue civilians from burning ships, fight pirates in dune-buggies on abandoned desert worlds, fall in love with deadly assassins and be back in time for breakfast.
If you are an old hand at RPG’s, the main draw here is that every player gets their own spaceship. You are not all sharing the Millennium Falcon, or in charge of the sensors on the Starship Enterprise. Instead it will be you shooting down pirates and flying into narrow canyons. The combat system is fast, but with tactical depth, so you can fight as a lightly-armed fighter or as a heavy battleship. In addition, your character has a life outside the party, and you can earn money doing independent trading, mining, exploring or bounty-hunting. If you miss a game because of other commitments you’ll be able to fill the time with more of these between adventures actions to make sure you don’t fall too far behind.
The game is also gorgeously presented, filled with art, advanced design and lovely, lovely tables! Seriously, the whole thing is quite striking – go and buy it at once!
What kind of ongoing support will the game receive? Adventures, campaigns, supplements?
We’ve just finished the game’s fourth supplement, Exploration, so right off the bat the game is well supported. You’ll find downloadable character sheets, ship sheets and vehicle sheets, both in black and white and colour, and form-fillable. We’ve got a GM’s screen coming out in June, which is looking very striking.
If you want a taster, a free adventure The Worst Intentions, is available to download from www.edrpg.co.uk and DriveThru RPG.
What more can we expect to see from Spidermind Games in the future?
ED Battle Cards, which is our next project has just been released and is available to pre-order at www.edbattlecards.com – no, we are not just producing Elite Dangerous products it was just that of all the projects that we are currently developing, the card game was completed first. Later in the year we will take a break from Sci Fi and release our first board game – more to follow. We will also be announcing a tie in with a well known publisher to make an RPG of a bestselling series of books, but again more of this to follow later in the year – lots to look out for.
"BLAST INTO A DANGEROUS GALAXY…
…where the police shoot on sight, entire systems are overrun with space pirates, and money is the only thing that talks. Gear up with high tech equipment to overcome heavily armoured combat drones, elite corporate assassins, and over-gunned soldiers of the interstellar powers.
RELENTLESS FAST-PACED COMBAT
Each player owns their own spaceship, which is completely customizable with multi-cannons, plasma accelerators, enhanced shields and super-fast Frame Shift Drives. Land on alien planets and get behind the wheel of your Surface Reconnaissance Vehicle (SRV) to explore, or strap yourself into your own battle tank and storm pirate bases.
STRAP YOURSELF IN AND ROLL THE DICE
Elite: Dangerous is the modern day incarnation of the seminal space trading game Elite. 30 years after the original game reinvented the way people experienced playing computer games, Elite: Dangerous Role Playing Game seeks to immerse the role player in the same cut throat galaxy experience by online players."