The name’s Davenport. I review games.
So the other day, this guy walks into my office wearin’ an old-school spacesuit: silvery, bubble helmet, rocket pack, the works. That spelled “pulp scifi” to me, so I was already interested before Mr. Spaceman even opened his mouth.
Which was a good thing, since he did a whole lotta mouth-openin’.
“GREETINGS, SPACE CADET!” he says, tromping up to my desk with book in hand. (What is it about spacesuits that make people yell, anyway? Must be the bubble helmets.) “I am Captain Rick Atomic, here to present you with a review manual for Rocket Age, a roleplaying game in the retro-futuristic 1930s!”
“Yeah, that sounds…”
“SEE the awe-inspiring dinosaurs of Venus!”
“SEE the mysterious ruins of Ancient Mars!”
“If you could just…”
“SEE the horrifying mutants of Io!”
“Let me know when you’re done.”
“SEE the amazing flying saucers of Europa!”
I lit up a smoke.
“ROCKET RANGERS, AWAAAAAAAY!!!”
And he blasts off through the ceiling. Which meant only one thing.
Mrs. Jones up in 211 was gonna be pissed.
Part One: Tour of the Solar System
Rocket Age takes place in an alternate, retro-futuristic, pulpy solar system circa 1938. To call it a “pulp” setting doesn’t quite hit the mark, though. While the elements of pulp scifi are certainly here — the rayguns, the rocket ships, the flying saucers, the dinosaurs, etc. — the tone might be described as “pulppunk” or “rocketpunk”. Take the elements you’d expect from pulp scifi but apply a more cynical, “realistic” worldview, with real-world ugliness like racism, imperialism, and environmental destruction, and you’ll have the right idea.
As of the time of the setting, humanity has explored as far as Jupiter, with only very limited expeditions to Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, and none to Pluto. Each planet and moon of interest receives a full, evocative write-up along with notes regarding the length of day, length of year, average distance from Earth, theme, complication, sample personality, and story hooks, with specific regions getting themes, complications, personalities, and story hooks of their own.
Ironically, the only planet neglected is Earth, where a sidebar explains that the geopolitical situation is basically that of real-world Earth at the time. I find that a bit hard to swallow, especially given the possible impacts of anachronistic high technology.
- Mercury: Uninhabited, molten on one side and frozen on the other, there’s not much there to attract exploration. Nothing to see here (probably?)… Move along…
- Venus: Your classic pulp jungle setting, complete with dinosaurs, man-eating plants, and primitive (but intelligent) ape-men. Radium mining is creating environmental havoc in some areas.
- Luna: With a thin atmosphere and some liquid water, the Moon should be life-bearing but isn’t. It does, however, feature ruins of an advanced civilization with technology that has yet to be deciphered.
- Mars: A dying desert planet with a previously stagnant rigid caste system now thrown into chaos by Earthling imperialism and ideas like democracy, communism, and fascism. Modern Martian technology tops out at the cumbersome but deadly radium rifle, but the lost technological wonders of the Ancient Martians lure explorers and would-be conquerors.
- Asteroid Field: A dangerous area of tumbling rocks. Miners seek ore, and scientists study the recently-discovered ruins of yet another lost civilization.
- Jupiter: A gas giant that’s home to totally aerial life forms and fragile floating islands. Volatile gasses in the atmosphere make airships, rather than rocket ships, the prefered mode of transportation. Its moons include:
- Callisto: A barren ice world, home to the fearsome Callisto Yeti.
- Europa: The forbidden homeworld of the enigmatic and super-advanced Europans.
- Ganymede: A beautiful forest-covered world turned into a new Wild West thanks to a gold rush.
- Io: The blasted, mutant-haunted remains of a once-great civilization destroyed by the Europans.
The outer planets, having seen little to no exploration, receive only brief (albeit tantalizing) descriptions.
One minor point: The setting leaves gravity (and adapting to it) largely a non-issue. This makes sense, as it allows for the pulpy exploration of all the planets in the solar system. Just don’t be disappointed when your Earthling can’t go all superhuman John Carter when on Mars.
Also, I realize that this is silly, but when it comes to scifi settings, I tend to find those restricted to the Solar System to be somehow claustrophobic. Such is not the case here, thanks to how well the Solar System has been fleshed out with so many vibrant locations.
Part Two: Heroes of the Rocket Age
Rocket Age uses a point-buy character creation system, with players receiving an allotment of 42 Character Points to spend on all aspects of their characters.
In the core rulebook, players choose from one of 14 species (“sophonts”). Each species has its own racial attribute maximums, automatic Traits (see below), and Character Point costs.
- Earthlings: Humans, with average maximum attributes the board and noteworthy mainly for their ability to make friends easily
- Europans: Enigmatic, arrogant psychic weirdoes.
- Ganymedians: Strange bipedal plant/fungus beings.
- Ioites: Unpleasant feral mutant dog-men.
- Martians: Humanoids so divided by their caste system that each caste is essentially its own race with greatly varying appearances.
- Craftsman (Talandri)
- Feral (Chanari)
- Merchant (Pilthuri)
- Priest (Kastari)
- Royal (Silthuri)
- Slave (Julandri)
- Warrior (Maduri)
- Venusians: Powerful spiritual ape-men.
Players may then select optional Occupations, which provide Attribute and Skill bonuses and additional Traits, again with a pre-set Character Point cost.
At this point, players purchase Attributes and Traits.
The Human Attribute range is 1-6. The Attributes are Awareness, Coordination, Ingenuity, Presence, Resolve, and Strength, and the Skills are Athletics, Convince, Craft, Fighting, Knowledge, Marksman, Medicine, Science, Subterfuge, Survival, Technology, and Transport. The As you can see, the Skills are quite broad, producing characters of appropriately pulpy levels of competence.
Traits are either Good (costing Character Points) or Bad (adding Character Points) and fall into the general categories of Minor, Major, and Special. It’s here that you’ll find mundane Traits like Attractive and Slow Reflexes alongside psychic powers and species-specific abilities like Armor and Nightvision.
I should note that the list includes some species abilities that don’t relate to any of the core book’s sophonts, including being a robot. I appreciate the flexibility that offers, although I’m not sure how wise it would be to create an entirely new sophont and risk creating a species that will have to be retconned as the authors continue to flesh out the Solar System. Even the Robot Trait is of dubious use, as I discovered when one of my players wanted to use it — yes, the necessary game stats are there, but there is no indication of what robots are like in the setting, how common they are, or where they are found.
Other than fleshing out the character’s background, the final step is equipping the character. The game plays fast and loose with funds — for the most part, characters can have any sort of equipment that seems appropriate to the character for “free”. The exceptions are items that are rated as “Priceless”, which much be discovered, rewarded, etc., and those that cost Story Points (see below).
For this sort of setting, I like being able to equip characters without having to “go shopping”. Ironically, however, the first adventure module for the game includes the necessity to purchase and monitor supplies, which required a sort of jury-rigged Story Point economy.
Overall, I found the character creation system to be quite fast due to its modularity while allowing for plenty of room for customization.
Part Two: Equipment
The equipment chapter covers an admirably wide range of weapons, armor, and vehicles, from simple clubs to city-demolishing Europan dreadnought saucers. The descriptions of the retro-tech items bring a nice touch of verisimilitude, making exotic devices like RAY weapons seem perfectly plausible in the context of the setting.
Expensive mundane devices and all exotic devices cost Story Points (see below). Because certain professions like Rocket Ranger include bundles of exotic equipment, such characters may find themselves somewhat crippled in the Story Point department. As you might imagine, rocket ships are quite costly, requiring groups to pool their Story Point resources.
Aside from the retro-tech devices you’d probably expect, the chapter also includes exotic but low-tech equipment from Venus, Mars, and Ganymede. I particularly like the psychic-powered wood-and-crystal weapons of the Venusians that can block and redirect RAY gun beams, making these “primitives” a threat to even well-equipped Earthling interlopers. Also of interest are the technological wonders of the Ancient Martians, which aren’t quite on the level of “magic items” but which are certainly worthy of daring expeditions to uncover. For perspective, Ancient Martian technology was the source of Earthling RAY weaponry, and even the mighty Nazi mechs known as War Walkers are but pale shadows of the Ancient Martian vehicles they seek to emulate.
Part Three: Game System
Rocket Age uses the Vortex System, first introduced in Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space.
The universal mechanic is 2d6 + Attribute + Skill (or + Attribute) +/- modifiers = Result, with the result then subtracted from the Difficulty (Normal = 12) to determine the Degree of Success. The Degree of Success, in turn, breaks down into six levels: Disastrous, Bad, Failure, Success, Good, Fantastic. The names “Failure” and “Success” are a bit misleading, as they actually refer to partial failures and successes, with potential good/bad sides, respectively.
Weapons have flat damage ratings. In combat, an attack’s Degree of Success provides a multiplier to determine the final damage: Success = x0.5, Good = x1.0, Fantastic = x1.5. Damage comes directly off of Attributes, with the impaired Attributes any that can be justified based upon the nature of the attack. Note that combat can be physical, mental, or social. If three Attributes are reduced to zero, the character is out of action. As you might imagine, this results in a fairly rapid death spiral. Speeding things up a bit is the option of giving “mooks” a Damage Threshold — essentially, hit points.
The basic mechanic put me very much in mind of Cinematic Unisystem (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, et al), albeit with 2d6 rather than 1d10 — to my mind, a good thing, insofar as the system fades into the background. On the other hand, in play, it seemed that (partial) Successes were frustratingly common.
Story Points are the game’s version of drama/fate/hero/etc. points, the expenditure of which allows characters to do such things as gain clues, bend the plot, reduce damage, roll an extra 2d6, avoid death, and so on. I’m a very big fan of such mechanics. However, Story Points are also used to activate certain Traits and equipment. That annoys me, as I dislike rules that manifest with no in-setting explanation. Is the RAY gun out of ammo? Is the psychic just tired? No… the player in question just hasn’t done enough to impress the GM in order to earn more Story Points. Granted, the fact that some items come with their own Story Points does help matters somewhat.
I confess to being surprised that Rocket Age kept the Doctor Who method for determining initiative.
Who goes when depends upon who’s doing what. The action order is as follows: Talking, Moving, Doing, Fighting. That makes perfect thematic sense in Doctor Who, in which talking is far, far more important than fighting. But in a guns-blazing two-fisted pulp sci-fi game, it just seemed to slow things down. Fortunately, if this grates on you a bit as it did me, it’s an easy thing to ignore in favor of more traditional initiative.
Part Four: Gamemaster Advice
In what strikes me as an efficient move, the author doesn’t assume that the GM reading this chapter is new to the craft. In fact, the chapter only takes the time to list four simple rules for good GMing before offering six possible series premises (agents, explorers, natives, pirates, soldiers, ship and crew) and five episode outlines. The latter look like they have a lot of potential, but they are simply outlines, lacking any stats to back them up. Fortunately for the pressed-for-time GM, Cubicle 7 offers a free introductory adventure here.
Part Five: Alien Beasts
The bestiary includes thirteen creatures: one from Callisto, three from Jupiter, four from Mars, and five from Venus. Frankly, I don’t think this is enough even to get a gamemaster started, but I also don’t think cramming sufficient creatures into the core rulebook would have been feasible. We are talking about an entire solar system, after all.
Some of the artwork seems just a bit rushed, but overall, the book maintains a classy retro-future look. I’m particularly fond of the Rocket Ranger recruitment poster, and the images of art deco rocketships soaring through a realistically-rendered solar system are simply stunning.
The writing both skillfully immerses the reader in the setting and explains the system. The book is well-organized, with a large index. I did notice a few typos, but nothing too distracting.
This is a game that does what it sets out to do very well, and I give it high marks. Figuring out who might enjoy it is a trickier matter, only because I’ve never seen a game that takes an almost postmodern approach to pulp scifi conceits. That unique take on the subject might turn off those looking for straight-ahead morally unambiguous pulp adventure; however, I would recommend that anyone remotely interested in the subject matter give this game a look. It’s a classy, intelligent, and creative piece of work.