If I wanted to just do reviews of games and game products on this blog, I'd have material for at least six months (even assuming I stopped acquiring new stuff). It wasn't all that long ago that I wrote how I loathe buying PDFs and prefer actual printed books, and how I really hate buying both. But this before my local game store (Gary's Games) closed shop, and long before I moved to Paraguay for what appears will be an extended stay. These days, I'M one of those dudes emailing publishers and asking "when will this be available in electronic format?"
[yeah, I've turned into that guy. I still prefer hard copy, but since I can only get mail order every 3-6 months (when I get state-side), more often than not I'm purchasing BOTH hard and e-copy so that I can peruse the PDF while I'm down here. New Fire, for example...a beautiful book that I will probably never, ever use...is one which I bought both in print and PDF format. I should write about it...and about Bulldogs! and Capes, Cowls, and Villains Foul and Crimson Blades and Dust Devils and...well, you get the idea]
James M. Spahn's White Star is S&W Star Wars...no more, no less. Like my years long, on-and-off B/X Star Wars project...except using Swords & Wizardry as its base. The text, monsters, and campaign ideas imply that the system can be used for more concepts: Star Trek, Firefly, Aliens, etc. But it really can't...not as written. It says it's taken a cue from other space opera stories, like Flash Gordon (and presumably Buck Rogers)...but it's lacking in areas that would allow one to run those kind of games.
Without modification, that is. Folks have already started adding their own supplemental setting material for White Star. Tenkar's doing as series of WS "pocket settings," WrathofZombie knocked off more than a dozen alien races for the game, and Calum M created a hack-splice one might call White Star 40K (if you were so inclined) set in humanity's grim, dark future. Clearly, people love a game that can be house-ruled easy-shmeazy.
Have they never seen Dave Bezio's X-Plorers?
White Star is very spookily similar to my original "first pass" at B/X Star Wars...right down to a "Star Knight" (i.e. Jedi) character class with Wisdom as a prime requisite. An "aristocrat" class based on CHA? Check...though I call mine "high born." Spahn's three robot classes? Almost exactly the same. Star Wars monsters with the names rearranged? Check and double check (though I called my Sith "Shadow Lords," not "Void Knights"). The equipment list as well (though I had "shielded" weapons occupying the spot of him "monofilaments" and I had a catchier name for my lightsaber knock-offs).
This kind of thing is easy enough to do...if you take Saga edition Star Wars and examine the differences between it, simple D20, and early edition D&D it's not very hard to "reverse engineer" to something like B/X or OD&D (or LL or S&W). That was my initial impetus for tooling around with the idea after all. The stuff Spahn has done, concept-wise, is the easy stuff.
[writing, organizing, and commissioning great artwork isn't anything to sniff at, just BTW...in this review, I'm just talking about the design of the game]
Which is to say, I guess, that I'm a lot less impressed than some folks are. I know, I know: I'm a big turd. Thanks. Now let me talk about the stuff in White Star that I REALLY don't like...
[boy, I hate this part...the "honest opinion"]
One of the things preventing White Star from being something other than Star Wars, is its conspicuous lack of a scientist/engineer class. Without such an archetype you lose a large swath of protagonist characters from classic space opera: the Spocks and McCoys and Scottys (Star Trek); the Dr. Hans Zarkovs (Flash Gordon), Dr. Huer/Dr. Theopolis (Buck Rogers), Kaylee and Simon Tam (Firefly), The Robinsons (Lost in Space)...even Cale Tucker from Titan A.E. These are major protagonists, not hired henchmen, and they allow for different types of problem solving besides blowing holes in things with your blasters, or ships guns, or "star sword." Sure it's an easy fix (house rule your own)...but it's easy enough that it should have already been included in the game (with a prime req of INT, yeah?).
[and if you're going to bother to have hired assistants, it would sure be nice to have a description...or better yet, an NPC write-up in the monster...er, "alien creatures" section. After all, these aren't ALL "aliens" (see soldier, for example)]
But that's just an annoyance. What's far more problematic is the damn experience system. I've written before that about the hardest thing to design for a space opera RPG is a decent method of character development...even X-Plorers effectively "punts" on the subject. White Star simply defaults to standard OD&D (or, rather, S&W) save that it gives XP for "credits" as opposed to gold pieces.
How is this in any way informed by the space opera genre? Sure, it makes the game S&W compatible (which appears to be a clear design choice), but how does that facilitate anything other than a Firefly/Traveller-esque game? Hell, how does that allow one to play Star Wars, the thing for which WS seems expressly designed? In which Star Wars film are the protagonists looking for a big score of cash?! This is worse than a punt...it's a knucklehead move. And, yes, you can, of course, house rule something different...but when you start needing to change the basic building blocks of the game, then you might as well be designing your own game.
[or, to put it another way: file the fantasy tropes off S&W classes, monsters, and magic spells and don't even bother buying White Star]
At least Bezio's X-Plorers gave you an XP value for blowing up enemy starships. White Star has no XP award for space combat (unless you're supposed to add up an amount for the pilots and techs aboard an enemy starship...difficult considering there's no guideline for how XP is calculated (like for, say, NPC character classes) and there's no NPC listing for things like, say, enemy pilots and gunners). Sure, you can house rule your own stuff in this regard (in fact, you have to) or steal from something like Terminal Space...but then, why are you bothering to play this game again? Because it has nice artwork?
[it does have nice artwork for B&W interior pieces]
Magic...er, force powers...er, "Meditations and Gifts" are simply the Vancian magic system re-written for Star Knights and Alien Mystics. Nothing particularly special here, and again it's just taking the "easy road" design-wise, rather than attempting to model the genre in function as well as form. But, of course, you can house rule your own system...as with everything here....
Spahn takes an interesting tact with regard to non-human races ("aliens"), creating two specific race-as-classes in the forms of the archetypes Alien Brute and Alien Mystic. I'll be honest: much as I love me my race-as-class in fantasy adventure games, the one time I feel it's better to add a species tag is in the space opera genre, where other space-faring races have their own pilots and techs and nobles and soldiers, etc. So...ballsy as it is to take this route, it's probably another thing that I'd want to house rule...especially if you want to play something that looks like the Star Wars Expanded Universe with its non-human Jedi, er "Star Knights." Just another "possible campaign setting," right? So how do you model all those be-tentacled, saber-swinging Jedi monstrosities from the prequel trilogy using only the "Alien Mystic" class? Heck, they even have a different spell list from the Star Knights' "meditations" (and Why O Why do you need a purify food & drink spell?). What if I want my Alien Brute copilot to aid in repairing my starship (or putting my protocol 'bot back together?)?
Oh, right: just house rule it.
Look, let's talk turkey for a moment. It probably sounds like I'm being awfully hard on White Star...and, yeah, I guess I am. Fortunately for Mr. Spahn, my opinion isn't valued all that much these days, even around my own corner of the blog-o-sphere. And anyway, he's making his money: White Star is #36 on the DriveThru RPG sales. I bought it myself...no one gifted me with a review copy.
Here's the thing about White Star: if you want to run something space opera-y ESPECIALLY in the Star Wars (original trilogy) variety, and want it in a familiar system (i.e. "old school D&D-esque"), then White Star is the closest thing you're going to find. It does more work than X-Plorers in a couple regards (monster lists and a Jedi/Force system), and is much more streamlined and (in my opinion) "user friendly" than Stars Without Number. But at 130+ pages, nicely laid out and well-illustrated...well, I guess I was expecting more for my money.
Actually, scratch that. For the $8 I paid, it's a quality product...I've certainly paid more money for less useful game material (consider the Dungeoneer's Survival Guide...). And I don't think the game has been "over-hyped" by the blog-o-sphere (not nearly the same way as "5E Basic" was, for example). Like I said, it's the closest thing to its target that you're really going to find. Hell, its got falcon-men and felinoids...it obviously wanted to be Flash Gordon compatible.
It's just that Flash never looted anyone to "level up."
But I AM disappointed that it didn't do more, or invest more, in the design process than what I was doing back in 2010...back when I was calling my project "B/X Starkillers." There's a reason I didn't publish something like this: it wasn't good enough. Even if I'd had the artwork and professional design layout, the content wouldn't have been good enough. And I suppose I'm disappointed that this is the best someone can come up with after all these years. Production-wise, it still doesn't hold a candle to FFG's Star Wars series of RPGs.
Tell you what I'll do: let me look over my very long-ass document that was going to be a SW-esque supplement for X-Plorers (no, it's not the same thing as my B/X Starkillers...White Star is close enough to BXSK that publishing it in any form would be fairly redundant). Give me a chance to clean it up a bit, and I'll post it to the blog as a series of posts to spice up your X-Plorers game. Free of charge. My original idea was (of course) to publish it and make some money for all my hard-earned words typed, but I am sooooo sick of looking for artists and artwork (God, I wish I could draw like some of these self-published dudes)...I'll give you the "sans art" version as a freebie.
Yes, I have no less than three other projects I'm working on at the moment, but you people deserve a bone, every now and then. Right? Sure you do.