A couple weeks back I managed to pick up a copy of Dave Bezio’s X-Plorers down at Gary’s Games in Greenwood. A lot of people over the last couple years have suggested I pick this one up due to my A) dissatisfaction with most space opera RPGs on the market and B) my love of things “old school” and somewhat “rules light.” However, until recently the thing wasn’t available in a print form that I could pick up and hold and flip-through and read…at least not that I’d seen down at my FLGS.
See, I’m a weird dude. I read email and comments (here and on certain forums) fairly regularly from folks complaining that I don’t offer my books in an electronic or PDF format (though, yes, I do offer my B/XCompanion in such a format these days)…but for me, it is extremely rare that I will EVER fork out hard-earned cash for anything less than a solid, tangible product. I can’t be sure, but I think the only time I’ve made such a purchase (at least in recent memory) was Raggi’s Death Frost Doom, and I was terribly disappointed (not because it was a bad adventure, but because I ended up blowing a bunch of ink and paper to print the damn thing…I just don’t like reading books off a screen!).
[oh, wait…I also purchased a copy of 3:16 in electronic format, too]
So anyhoo…I’m an anachronistic kind of guy and unless something is readily available for me to buy in a physical format I generally won’t…such was the case with X-Plorers. I had previously browsed the free version on-line, but truth-be-told I didn’t pay all that much attention to it, being put off by the large swatches of blank space (compared to, say, the downloadable Terminal Space)…it gave the whole text a feeling of…well, a fairly amateur effort I guess.
[to understand my bias, you have to grok that I’ll write up 30 pages of game rules and charts myself that, save for the nifty spaceship diagrams, look about as good and yet are nothing I’d consider publishing…]
So fast forward to me shelling out hard currency and holding the glossy soft-cover in my hands…Bezio’s book is great, and I was VERY impressed when I saw the printed book. Previously, I’ve written a brief piece on my thoughts of Terminal Space and a rather lengthy bit on my feelings for SWN but I’ve got to say that between these three Old School offerings of space opera fantasy, X-Plorers has got to be my favorite of the bunch…something I was not ready to say prior to holding the solid work in my grubby grasp. Here’s why:
X-Plorers isn’t “dungeon-delving in space.” It’s not “space opera on a B/X chassis.” Heck, I wouldn’t even call it a “what if RPG that examines an alternate reality where the designers of D&D instead chose to focus their efforts on pulp Sci-Fi” (which is, pretty much, the objective laid out by the author).
Nope, what we have here is a mash-up of Star Frontiers and Swords & Wizardry (the OD&D retroclone) with a tiny bit of D20 sensibility thrown in to boot. And Star Frontiers (which I’ve lambasted system-wise on more than one occasion) has never looked so good.
The fact it can do this in under 40 pages is truly remarkable.
Now my own “B/X space opera” game (on-hold lo these many moons as I’ve pursued the development of my DMI-based system) shares a number of similarities with X-Plorers, which probably goes a long way towards endearing it to me, especially as Bezio has managed to articulate some things better than I ever did. His spaceship combat system is very close to my own, but better done, and his classes and level structure…and especially his class-related skill checks…are very similar to my original ideas and I especially like the particular archetypes he’s chosen, and their corresponding overlap of skills. Interesting that I can see the integration of Star Frontiers skills into the classes in a very logical and intuitive way…as someone who played a lot of SF back-in-the-day I find this ingenious, even if it is a no-brainer in retrospect.
Allow me a moment to gush over some of the additional highlights (*ahem*):
- Compacted Star Frontiers equipment list; keeping the flavor without going over-board (to we really need rules for a recoilless rifle? No…and Bezio leaves it out, while still including sonic swords and lasers and SEUs). Kudos especially to adequately adapting the system to its OD&D base.
- Very workable starship combat.
- Good rules for crafting alien monsters…better than Star Frontiers ever did, IMO.
- Nice, workable psychic rules.
- Good ability scores/modifiers (doesn’t overwhelm the game).
- Good, adapted personal combat system (hard to tell without running a few rounds, but seems just fine).
- Nice, tight, streamlined package allowing plenty of space for imagination and hours of adventure possibility with little extra effort.
Now it’s not a perfect game. Some of the “low lights” are pretty critical ones. Without getting TOO nitpicky I’ll say the multi-classing doesn’t work, or else doesn’t make much sense…I understand what his objective was, but it just doesn’t translate in execution (quick! Your character starts as a level one warrior and advances five levels in scientist…how many XPs does it take you to achieve 7th level?). It’s just not quite as slick as it could have been…but I understand that it’s tough to make the “warrior-botanist,” etc. without it, since most specific procedures (i.e. “skills”) are tied directly to class.
The other main issue is the lack of guidance on how much XP to award for successful “missions.” Well, the guidelines for mission creation in general is pretty sparse, but especially with regard to reward/advancement there’s little guidance aside from “whatever feels right” (I guess). Which, to me, is a fairly big cop-out of game design, though I suppose it beats the alternative of trying to make sense of a nonsensical advancement system (which is something I’ve struggled with for years now in attempting to write an intelligent space opera game).
Those are the main gripes, though of course X-Plorers isn’t really built to do Star Wars (which is kind of the point…for me…of writing/playing a space opera game). If I wanted to do Star Frontiers with players working for the PGC against the evil Sathar and space pirates, etc. this would be the system to use…I don’t think it would be too hard to come up with rules for dralasites and vrusk and yazirians (either making them their own classes or else having an XP up-tick in exchange for a few species related bennies).
Actually, X-Plorers is slick enough (and sleek enough) that it should be a real piece o easy to adapt a LOT of classic space opera ideas to it…including Star Wars. Hell, like I said it’s already pretty similar to the B/X Star Wars I was working on prior to DMI. I am sorely tempted to create a compatible supplement using the terms of their X-Plorers Trademark License using the rules and notes I’ve already got archived on the old zip drive.