Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Exploring Thousand Suns

For one of my many pandemic diversions this year I picked up a copy of James Maliszewski’s Thousand Suns roleplaying game. It’s lingered on the periphery of my gaming radar for a while. I’m an admirer of the author’s Tékumel fanzine, The Excellent Travelling Volume, as well as his Grognardia blog. Having enjoyed classic Traveller back in the day – my “Golden Age of Roleplaying” in the early and mid 1980s – Thousand Suns’ allure of “imperial science fiction” appealed to my gaming nostalgia. So I ordered a print-on-demand copy of the second, more generously illustrated edition and started reading.

Of course I’ve heard of the Cepheus engine, the retro-clone game system based on classic Traveller (and available through an Open Gaming License [OGL] encouraging third-party publications). I’ve glanced over a few of the free versions available online. It certainly adheres more closely to the original Traveller game mechanics than what I saw in Thousand Suns. Numerous creators have produced a host of Cepheus resources thanks to the OGL. Yet sometimes a vast wealth of information seems more like a flood of content requiring a good deal of sifting to find truly useful bits; I’ve certainly reached a point in my life where less is more. Besides, if I’m going to play something that evokes the nostalgia of classic Traveller, I’m going to return to the classic Traveller material; I’m lucky to have my original books from my halcyon high school gaming days, plus resources gathered over the years and a few recent additions thanks to game-collector websites like Wayne’s Books. With Thousand Suns I hoped for something a little more streamlined, both in game mechanics and an imperial science fiction setting...and I’m pretty satisfied at what I discovered.

At 276 pages the rulebook packs everything one might expect in a science fiction roleplaying game: character creation, careers, skills, combat, psi powers, tech and gear, starships and vehicles, aliens, world creation, and allies and antagonists. The core task resolution mechanic takes all of four pages to explain: roll 2d12 and roll equal to or less than the target number, usually attribute plus skill level, though other factors can modify that. The difference between the target number and a successful roll is the degree of success, useful for determining damage and the quality of other result. I’ll admit I’m not a fan of “roll under” systems, but I liked the simplicity and utility of this core mechanic.

Most rules cover territory defined by Traveller’s meticulous tables and procedures for generating setting elements; Thousand Suns is only slightly less “crunchy” than original Traveller, just with a nice 21st century sheen folks have come to expect from retro-clones of games more than 40 years old. For instance, instead of relying on tables for character careers (including the infamous “death by character generation”) Thousand Suns offers players a choice: characters can choose their career level (novice, experienced, or veteran) and career, which comes with attribute and skill bonuses; a character can have several careers, three at novice level or one novice and one expert career (or just settle for one career at veteran level). Starship, alien, and world creation all rely on tables and procedures far more streamlined than Traveller yet embodying the same spirit.

Throughout the book Maliszewski reminds readers about core themes in imperial science fiction, many of which he summarizes in greater depth in the gamemastering chapter. Here one also finds two pages of tables, a d12-based adventure seed generator for randomized inspiration. The world generation chapter condenses most planetary attributes to a number of streamlined tables like Traveller, with an extra table for “hooks” to generally describe a world’s appeal to characters. A few pages offer rules and tables for “speculative trade” for those wishing to focus on this aspect of imperial science fiction.

The book frequently mentions a “meta-setting” and specific elements of that (mostly institutions, aliens, and galactic regions) primarily as a means of providing context for rules (especially in character creation). The text also encourages one to change or expand the setting framework to suit their own concept of imperial science fiction. About 30 pages cover the meta-setting, providing a summary of key events in galactic history, an outline of government institutions, notes on the usual extinct ancient civilization whose remnants remain strewn across worlds, and a sample sector with planet overviews and some simmering conflicts to exploit. These specific setting elements serve as examples of what one can do in the genre and could form a scaffolding onto which one might construct their own imperial science fiction universe.

Black-and-white line art and grayscale illustrations evoke the themes of imperial science fiction throughout the book. I was particularly pleased to see some old favorites among the artists: David Deitrick, whose precise mechanical drawing style defined many Games Designers Workshop settings like Traveller, Battletech and Space 1889; and Mike Vilardi, whose crisp, realistic renderings earned him a place as one of the most sought-after freelance artists for West End Games’ Star Wars Roleplaying Game line.

The few concerns I found with Thousand Suns fall within the realm of my personal pet peeves with many roleplaying games these days. The text could have used at least another proofreading, if not a more thorough editing for the occasional obvious typos and errors. I would like to have seen a solitaire tutorial adventure to plunge readers immediately into the game system, demonstrating the elegance of its core mechanic as well as key themes within imperial science fiction. A complete group adventure or a few developed scenario outlines might have helped establish the kinds of adventures characters might have in this setting (though one finds plenty of hooks throughout the text). These obviously reflect my own ideal expectations for core roleplaying game books at this stage in my life, when I don’t have the time and focus to fully immerse myself in games like I did in my earliest days exploring the adventure gaming hobby.

Alas my remarks are based solely on my reading of the rulebook. My in-person roleplaying game activities these days have dwindled to solitaire sessions indulging my interests and a few D6 Star Wars and Hero Kids sessions with my son and a few friends (and that was before America’s hellscape response to the pandemic shut down society as we know it, or something like that). But if I had a chance to run something in the imperial science fiction genre that wasn’t Star Wars (which is more heroic space opera than anything else), I’d turn to Thousand Suns rather than Traveller or Cepheus. I’m half-tempted to port the characters and notes for my solitaire Traveller campaign concept to Thousand Suns (though retaining some of the Traveller setting and resources). It offers an experience in the spirit of Traveller without the specific game mechanics of that game; streamlined rules satisfy modern expectations for such fare. Thousand Suns provides a core book with all the rules one expects for a complete experience and enough of a meta-setting to launch into a campaign...or ignore if you want to develop your own imperial science fiction setting.

The Thousand Suns rulebook PDF sells for $7.50 at DriveThruRPG, with print versions costing $21.25 or $26.25 (softcover/hardcover). Those seeking more material might find it in two supplements, one on starships and another a frontier sector sourcebook, as well as the first issue of Imperio, a fanzine dedicated to Thousand Suns and imperial science fiction roleplaying.

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