The name’s Davenport. I review games.
So the other day a Gladius light starfighter with Handling 3, Mobility 3, Tactical Speed 1000, Hull 20, Armor 8, Plasma Torpedo Launcher (Centerline), Top Mounted Pulse Laser Turret, Systems 3, ReAct -10, Fire Control System, Crew Protection, Hardening 5, and Shields 20 lands outside my office.
The pilot hops out, and when he takes off his helmet, I see that it’s Devon Oratz of the End Transmission Games crew. I invite him inside, and he tells me he’s got a review gig for me: The Singularity System, an all-purpose science fiction roleplaying game.
“All-purpose?” I says. “Well, it had better have aliens and cybernetics and psionics and spaceships.”
“Well,” he says, “most of the aliens and the cybernetics and psionics are in our supplements — the rules modules. But boy, do we have spaceships! Mechs, too! And loads of other types of vehicles! Here, take a look!”
Turns out he was right. He shows me pages and pages of vehicles.
I tell him that I’d give it a go, but I warn him that I’m not one for readin’ page after page of starship specs.
I couldn’t say much for his ride, either. Everybody knows the Gladius ain’t got nothing on the Dragonfly starfighter with Handling +1, Mobility 3, Tactical Speed 500, Hull 30, Armor 10, Turbolaser (Center Line), Belly Mounted Turret (Pulse Laser Turret), Two Rocket Pods, Six hardpoints, System 6, ReAct -10, Fire Control System, Hardening 6, Shields 60, Chaff 8, ECM, and Damage Control.
The End Transmission Games website describes The Singularity System as setting-neutral toolkit for science fiction roleplaying. That’s not exactly the case. The rulebook itself is far more accurate when it states that there is no such thing as generic science fiction and that The Singularity System attempts to position itself between the hardest of hard scifi and the handwaviest of space opera. In fact, the text states that the game does have a default setting — that of Systems Malfunction.
So, what does this setting look like? The summary from the rulebook’s introduction says it best:
- Faster-than-light space travel and communications (albeit not unlimited, cheap, or universally available).
- Planetary terraforming (albeit limited and expensive).
- Functional cryogenics and sleeper ships.
- True artificial intelligence (although strictly regulated).
- Functional nanotechnology (albeit without unlimited selfreplication).
- Laser and plasma weaponry (albeit not replacing slug-throwing
firearms, especially not at the man-portable scale).
- Cybernetic, genetic, biological, and nanotechnological humanoid augmentations, albeit not without serious physiological consequences if misused or overused.
- Cloning (albeit not generally used for multiplicative reasons).
- Humanoid created ringworlds and superstructures.
- Starfighters and capital ships.
- Autonomous robots, advanced drones, and human-looking
- Giant. Fighting. Mechs.
I’d have to say that the tech level is somewhere around that of the Halo video game series.
Of course, talk of Halo brings up the question of aliens. That’s not really the focus of this book. The book includes three examples of alien fauna and one sapient alien species, the Xel. Unfortunately, since the Xel are described as being universally psionic and since the core rulebook doesn’t include psionics, the Xel will be of limited use outside of GM fiat. You’ll need the psionics sourcebook to get full use out of them.
For that matter, those cybernetic, genetic, biological, and nanotechnological humanoid augmentations don’t appear in the core rulebook, either. You’ll need a supplement for them as well.
On the other hand, if what you need is a thorough treatment of scifi vehicles, be it land, sea, air, and/or space, and including mechs, this is your game. It offers everything from light armored recon ground vehicles to massive space dreadnoughts. The equipment section is very expansive as well and includes customizable power armor. And at $28 for a hardback, it’s an inexpensive starting point from which to build upon.
The Singularity System uses a simple d6 pool mechanic. For any action, players roll a number of d6 equal to skill level. Each die that is successful is called a Hit. The minimum die roll for a Hit depends upon one of three difficulty levels: Easy (4), Normal (5), or Hard (6). If you lack a skill, you can default to the linked attribute at the Hard level and with -2 on your dice pool.
Now, generally speaking, I prefer a simple attribute + skill system, but I have to confess that in play this system minimizes math and allows for quick and clear challenge resolution. On the negative side, I find the three difficulty levels a bit restrictive… but, again, it does keep things simple.
Rolling all 1s results in a catastrophe, while rolling all 6s results in a stroke of luck.
I’m a big fan of the chance for critical failures and successes being tied to ability level. This system works in that regard for catastrophes, as they become less likely with increased skill. Unfortunately, the system also makes strokes of luck less likely with increased ability.
Characters receive drama/fate/hero points in the form of Advent Tokens that may be spent to re-roll all dice that are not Hits or to convert catastrophes into normal failures. (Alternately, players can accept a catastrophe and regain an Advent Token.) Advent Tokens have further uses in combat that I’ll discuss below. For now, I’ll just say that I’m all for this touch of heroic narrative control.
The book includes a very helpful chapter on common applications of skills and attributes, including the time required, the difficulty, the required equipment, and the Hits needed — cutting open an airlock or accessing a warpgate, for example.
Characters .get 28 Attribute Points to distribute between seven core Attributes: Strength, Fortitude, Quickness, Perception, Intelligence, Cyber (man/machine interface affinity), and Advent (which determines the number of the aforementioned Advent tokens). Derived statistics from these Attributes include Health (Fortitude +6), Evasion (starting at Quickness), and Initiative (Quickness + Perception).
The scale for Attributes is 1-10, with 3 being the human average and 6 being the unaugmented human maximum. The text describes 10 as “godlike”, which seems fairly low to me… A peak human is closer to being “godlike” than to being the weakest human? In addition, I’m not big on hard universal attribute caps, which this appears to be. Still, I can understand the motivation to keep dice pools manageable.
Characters get (Intelligence + 50) Skill Points. Skills are pretty broad, especially for a scifi game — Low Tech Weapons, for example, covers unarmed combat, melee weapons, and thrown weapons, including grenades.
All skills have one or two governing Attributes. For example, Quickness and Strength govern Low Tech Weapons, which I like. A skill cannot start at a level greater than 6 or the lowest governing Attribute, whichever is less, although characters use the higher of the two governing Attributes for skill defaulting. Oh, and in case you were wondering why Cyber is an Attribute in a core rulebook that doesn’t contain cybernetics, it’s because it covers machine-based skills like Gunnery, Mech Rig, Powered Armor, and Superluminal (FTL) Tech.
Unspent Skill Points can go to increasing the currency the starting PC has to spend on equipment and vehicles — a nice balancing mechanic.
Characters receive two free Perks (e.g., Ambidextrous) and can purchase up to two more at the cost of one Weakness per additional Perk. I’m very glad that two of the Perks are free, because the Weaknesses seem pretty harsh — an incurable addiction, never running from a fight, or always going dead last in combat, for example.
To speed up character creation, the book offers starting packages with 30 Skill Points pre-spent and two Perks pre-selected. I’m all for speeding things up, although I wish the packages included pre-selected Attributes as well. As it stands, players selecting a starting package must make sure that their Attribute levels allow for the packages’ skill levels.
Personal combat begins with an Initiative roll — the only Singularity System roll that’s an additive d6 pool. Apparently, this is to reduce the likelihood of a tie, since simultaneous actions aren’t allowed. On a character’s turn, he may take one minor action (e.g., move, draw a weapon) and one major action (e.g., attack).
Attacks are resolved by pitting the attacker’s relevant skill against the defender’s Evasion. Weapon accuracy (for ranged weapons) or size (for melee weapons) affects the attacker’s dice pool. The difficulty of the attack is normally standard barring factors such as range, while the Evasion difficulty depends upon the type of attack (e.g., it’s easier to dodge a thrown rock than it is to dodge automatic fire). On a successful attack, the defender takes damage equal to the net Hits plus weapon damage. Armor reduces damage, but the defender always takes at least 1 point of damage on a successful attack.
The system factors in such complications as armor damage, recoil, lethal vs. non-lethal damage, parrying, and active dodging.
I’m always in favor of a combat system that rewards better hits with more damage. I’m lukewarm on the minimum 1 point of damage, since it seems to me that a thrown rock shouldn’t bother a fully-armored space marine in the slightest, but that’s a minor point.
Overall, the personal combat rules combine a simple base mechanic with enough complications to effectively simulate scifi combat.
Tactical vehicular combat adds onto the basic formula of personal combat, introducing factors such as vehicular handling and maneuvers, and again, the rules do an excellent job of covering the variables involved. The only oddity I discovered in play is that because mechs have positive handling ratings and humans do not, mechs generally acted before humans in mixed combat. This is a big and, to my mind, unwarranted advantage for what are already walking tanks.
Strategic starship combat works very differently from either personal or tactical vehicular combat. (Starfighters are considered vehicles, not starships, by the way.)
First of all, to solve the problem of some PCs being left out of the action, the system includes five roles during starship combat, some with multiple slots depending upon the ship: Helmsman, Weapons Bay Operation, Turret/Point Defense Operation, Information Warfare, and Damage Control. Conversely, to keep smaller PC groups from being crippled while piloting large craft, the rules allow for the ship’s computer to man positions itself. The drawbacks in the latter case is that the more a ship is fully manned, the larger its bonus to initiative, and that the ship’s automated systems cannot spend Advent Tokens.
Note that this system may result in really large initiative pools. (The example given of a fully-manned corvette has an initiative pool of 16d6 + 24, for a total initiative of 60-132.)
All roles can act on the starship’s initiative; then, each role gets its own initiative score that’s subtracted from the starship’s initiative to determine when that role can act next. So long as a role has a positive initiative score, it may continue to act when its turn comes up. A new round begins when all initiative scores reach zero. A full combat turn is broken down into a number of “Clockticks” based on every number between the highest Starship Initiative value rolled and the final phase of that turn.
Now, to me, that’s a lot of numbers to keep track of. However, I’m not really the target market for strategic starship combat in the first place. Based upon the intended goal, this seems to be a reasonable approach.
Each role has several actions from which to choose, including some universal actions (e.g., repel boarders, mount starfighter). For example, the character in charge of Damage Control can attempt to tune the engine, boost the shields, focus the shields, reset the shields, patch the hull, or perform combat repairs. Again, there’s enough here to keep an entire group of PCs active during combat.
The book includes scaling rules between the three types of combat, making all three more useful in the process — especially for the all-important boarding actions.
Oh, and about the Advent tokens in combat: They can be used to add dice equal to the Advent score to an attack, to change the difficulty of one Evasion roll, Maneuver test, or any Starship Role Action to Easy, to max out initiative at the start of combat, and to take an extra action.
The font used, Consolas, really rubs me the wrong way. I can’t tell you exactly why. It just does. The layout is good, however.
The organization could use a bit of polish. For example, the facts that defaulting to an attribute gives you -2 to your dice pool and that it’s a Hard challenge are in two different sections. That said, the majority of the text is clear and concise, if a bit dry in places, and mostly error-free.
The art in the black-and-white interior varies wildly from okay to very good.
Finally, the book contains both a detailed table of contents and a large index.
I always do my best to judge a game based upon what it sets out to do. That made reviewing The Singularity System tricky, because the company seems to be of two minds regarding the purpose of the game. If it’s meant to be an all-purpose scifi toolkit, then I have to say that it’s too setting-specific and too dependent upon supplements to achieve its goal. If, on the other hand, it’s meant to be an only somewhat setting-neutral core book with a solid core system and expansive rules on vehicular combat and is only meant to be the ground floor of a larger system, then it succeeds quite handily.