Saturday, July 02, 2016

Machinations of the Space Princess

Art by Satine Phoenix from Machinations of the Space Princess

I am preparing to step back into GM'ing shoes soon (after a fairly long hiatus) and the consensus of those in my group was that they wanted to try something Space Opera. I thought briefly of using Five by Five. It's my game, and I like it. And it can do Space Opera just fine. But, I also like bringing the myriad works of others to the table. I love games. I love reading all the different systems. I love tinkering with rules. I just love everything about this hobby.

I set out with what I thought would be a simple task: Find a game system that is easily accessible, that will do Space Opera to the satisfaction of myself and my players. And while I did indeed find a lot of systems, finding the gem among those, proved to be more challenging than I first imagined.

I got it in my head that I wanted to use a d20 based system. The familiar D&D framework would require no special tutelage or preparation from anyone at the table and play could begin at full speed from the first die roll. And so, began my search. First I looked at Stars Without Number and White Star. Both are excellent games. Both are grounded in the simplicity of the old-school, which I like very much. For the kind of game I want to play, I really liked White Star. I loved the implied setting created through the class/race choices and the bestiary. It seemed ideal.

Unfortunately, my group balked at the choice. Not to take anything away from White Star, it is an excellent game. And, if the number of third party supplementary materials is any indication, it is warmly embraced by the community at large. But it is in matter of fact, very old school. This is the game's intention, and as I said this simplicity and clean design appeals to me. But I found that many of the old school aspects, (that for many - if not all - of White Star's audience are the very things that make the game so attractive,) were a bit "too" old school for me.

Some things that D&D used to do ... those things were abandoned for a reason. My first game was 1st Edition AD&D. I will be turning 51 in a couple of weeks. I have been active in this hobby for over 35 years. I am "old-school" as much as anyone. But, playing something just because that's how it used to be played ... I guess it's like those Civil War re-creationists. There is an enjoyment in experiencing things as they were experienced in another age. But, I think there is a better way to play.

My players wanted more options, more utility. So I extended my search, and there I found the flip-side of this rather unwieldy coin. I looked at D20 Future as well as a handful of "universal" systems. I had forgotten (or should I say, blocked out) just how overwhelmingly cumbersome D&D 3.5 and its offshoots really are. I know that these games too, are incredibly popular. But, for me, the rules are too much work.

When 3.5 was released, I loved it. I really did. I remember. So, maybe I am getting old. But as I looked at D20 Modern and D20 Future and considered trying to juggle all the little fiddly moving parts both during play and between sessions ... my head hurt. I mean it. Looking over the rules gave me a headache. Surely, I could find a game that was simple enough for me to run, but rich enough to engage my players?

Enter: Machinations of the Space Princess. This game has been sitting on my hard drive since I bought it over 2 years ago. I remember reading it back then and thinking that it looked, "pretty good." It's interesting what a few years and several hours of "comparison shopping" can do for ones perspective.

Let me start by saying that I think that the game's promotional tag-line, "Sexy, sleazy, swords and sci-fi!" isn't doing the game any favors. Nor is the title's intentional similarity with Lamentations of the Flame Princess, which is a game that seems to be all about creeping your players out and killing their characters as horribly as possible.

About Lamentations: LotFP is a solid game. Its systems are really clean and functional. LotFP re-imagines old-school in the right way. Keeping what works, tweaking what doesn't, and leaving all the baggage of the last 30-odd years behind. These are the things about Lamentations that Machinations draws upon. It's not "weird science fiction." It's not "sleazy science fiction" either. Sure, it can do "Barbarella" but aside from the occasional silly-fun one-off, who would want to?

The game has some pretty strong reviews, so what do I know? But on RPGNow, Machinations has 4 reviews and White Star has 17. I think that's a damned shame, and I think it's a matter of "image." I went to White Star first because I had this preconceived notion in my mind that it would do the type of space game that I wanted to play. Machinations didn't really occur to me. Even though I had read it, that was 2 years ago. I still judged the book by its cover.

Speaking of which, the artwork of Satine Phoenix is wonderful and I share a small sample above. But, that's not what I mean. I am speaking of the "flavor" implied by the packaging and presentation of Machinations. It screams: gonzo-punk-pulp-sci-sleaze. And for most, that's not going to come to the top of the stack when considering something to play for a long term space opera campaign. That's more something you throw in once, just for fun ... for a laugh. At least, that's how I saw it. That's how I thought about it.

I was wrong. And if you harbor a similar impression about Machinations of the Space Princess based upon its promotional slant, then you would be wrong too. Machinations is greater than its hype! As I re-read this game with an eye towards running a fun, familiar, versatile Space Opera game that will engage both myself and my players, I am falling in love. Beneath the sleazy veneer of gonzo-snark rests a solid game that might well be the best D20 Space Opera implementation available. It's certainly the right one for me.

Like LotFP character classes are specialized. The "Killer" for example is the only class that gets base to hit bonus improvements through level advancement. Clean, simple, focused with laser precision. That's what LotFP does. That's what this game takes as its foundation. Like LotFP the game uses a simple d6 skill system. But here skills have been expanded and evolved to cover not simply "skills" but also what in other systems might have been class abilities or feats. These things are all brought together under one system. It's elegant. It's smart. It works.

Then there are the racial traits. Rather than pick a single race, players can select traits from a myriad of different races, mixing and matching to create the alien race of their dreams. It's enough crunchy goodness to keep my "option hungry" players busy for hours, but adds almost no complexity or overhead to the game play. It's not only really smart, it's really fun to read.

That's where the "gonzo" vernacular does serve this game well. It's a damned fun read. I enjoyed leafing through its pages. Gone was my "D20 headache." Machinations had me smiling, laughing ... I even clapped my hands once.

This isn't a review of Machinations of the Space Princess. I am not a game reviewer. I am a game enthusiast. I love the hobby and I sometimes sit down and write about my excitement. Machinations of the Space Princess has me excited. It's a solid, seriously joyful Space Opera RPG that under the hood does everything right. Don't be fooled by the sexy negligee and the flash. This Princess is the real deal. I'm only sorry it took me two years to give her a chance.

(I just spent the better part of two days formatting a form fillable character sheet for MotSP. I thought it might be nice to share it HERE.  Also, if anyone out there is playing this game, I would love to hear about your experiences.)



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