Hi all - a loooong review of Seraphim Fleet Redux RPG, with some assistance from my brother.
SERAPHIM FLEET REDUX RPG
A science fiction RPG by Cemetery Corner. I bought my copy via Lulu for £19.00 plus postage. http://www.lulu.com/shop/cemetery-corne ... 38758.html
The book is a tad bigger than A5 sized, but is a hefty 349 pages long, so you certainly get your money’s worth in terms of page count.
There’s a big clue in the title as to the nature of this science fiction RPG – and that word is ‘Fleet’. Ships, ships and more ships are the backbone of Seraphim Fleet Redux. Military ships, civilian ships, human ships, alien ships. Large portions of the book are dedicated to all things ship shaped – there is a big chunk listing ships from all the various races, a large section on ships’ systems and customising your own ship, flavour text about the ‘physics’ of various methods of space travel, and of course ship-to-ship combat rules. Indeed, well over half of the book is dedicated to ships and ship-related rules. And this is the first RPG I’ve encountered with rules for how much you get in an insurance payment if your ship is destroyed!
As to artwork: there is next to none – just a few silhouettes of ships in chapter 4. I feel that a picture of the Aten (a PC alien race) might have been useful to see what they look like. Plus a map of how the various regions of space link up would be very handy – instead the rules suggest the GM reads thru all the relevant sections and draws their own. But apart from those two instances, I didn’t really miss having artwork.
The background is interesting, but a bit scant – a kind of Chariots of the Gods one where humanoid aliens (the Aten) visited Earth thousands of years ago, and posed as gods. Not just some gods – all gods. Even Jesus was an alien. The alien-gods were there to guide humanity, which makes me wonder exactly what all those gods that insisted on human sacrifice were teaching them? (Note: there is no mention of any Aten doing any such thing in Seraphim Fleet Redux, but the implication is definitely there that every single god humanity has ever worshipped was an alien, so at least one of them must have been telling the Aztecs to build pyramids with altars on top and get to sharpening those obsidian knives…)
Anyway, that’s all ancient history now. Millennia have passed and a science fictional future has arrived. Evil biomechanical aliens called the Lantys rained a killer disease down on Earth, and the uninfected survivors fled to found a civilisation in the stars, meeting up with and allying themselves with the Aten and the Kyreans along the way – the latter being human descendants of people taken from Earth at the time Ancient Egypt was Top Civilisation. So far, so Stargate. All was sweetness and light for a few centuries, until the Lantys helped Earth’s disease survivors rebuild their civilisation and – accidentally or deliberately – triggered them to start a wave of expansion and conquest. This is the Terran Advance and they are the main bad guys of the setting.
There isn’t that much more meat to the current state of the universe than what I’ve outlined above and what’s printed on their webpage: http://pastgames.cemeterycorner.com/sfr.html
The book does have some additional details about the history of the game universe and the current politics, but I found myself itching for more. There are, for instance, no details on any NPCs or persons of note in this universe – it would have been nice to know who the current commander of the Seraphim Fleet is and what folk think of him/her, and also have the personalities of a few prominent politicians or pirate leaders described. As it is, the GM is going to have to fill in all of those blanks themselves.
The setting is certainly wide open in terms of what style of campaign a GM might run. One chapter offers advice on the five Regions of space and what sort of games would work best where – whether they be trapped behind enemy lines in Region Terra, fighting on the main front of the war in Region Atlantea, or doing a more traditional Traveller style trading vessel plying the spaceways far, far away from the war in Region Eden. Many bits of Seraphim Fleet Redux feel like hard science fiction, but every now and then you run into a bit that is definitely pulp SF or Hollywood SF. For instance, their asteroid fields are definitely in the pulpy end of the spectrum – anything from a whole Sector to a whole Region (Tartarus) can be choked with rocks the way forests are choked with trees. And if you want hard SF you’ll have to tweak the volume of cargo space needed to carry things like microorganisms and data – the minimum unit of cargo capacity for either of these is 10 cubic metres. No, really. You want to transport data on “family secrets” from one system to another, you’ll need a hard drive that is 10 cubic metres in size. Just how many secrets does this family have?
Another pulpy feel to it is the implication that the PCs will be acting autonomously, rather than as part of some greater military whole. They won’t be assigned missions – they’ll look at a list of available ones and pick one/bid for one that they fancy doing. They won’t get ordered to the shipyards for a refit by their commanding officer – they’ll decide to spend £125,000 of their own money on installing better shields and a new coffee machine. They won’t be akin to Admiral Adama on the Galactica with a crew of hundreds to help him run the ship – they’ll be in charge of a Capital Ship that only requires a crew of 10 to run, but you can do it with a skeleton crew of 3 in a pinch. Yes, that’s not a mistake – I did indeed say Capital Ship and skeleton crew of 3. Perhaps computers and robots are doing all the jobs that people normally do on humungous battleships?
One thing I didn’t quite get is why you can only go from one Region of space to another using the Jump Gates (also called Warpgates and Stargates in the setting). Each Region is described as being divided into dozens to hundreds of Sectors – a sector being a solar system or the like. Even small crappy ships can jump from one Sector to another in minutes, so I’m not sure why they can’t go from one Region to another by taking the long way round and crossing those 100 sectors one at a time? Using a Jump Gate to get from Region A to Region B is like flying from London to Sydney. But you could also sail from London to Sydney. It would take much, much longer, but it is doable. However, Seraphim Fleet Redux’s background and military tactics rely on the fact that you can’t. And don’t really explain why you can’t.
Character sheets and ship sheets are available for download on the Cemetery Corner website. Char gen is fairly simple and easy – spend some points on Stats, then spend another bunch of points on Skills and skill specialisms. You can be a regular human, a Kyrean human or an Aten, and there are no stat or skill bonuses or penalties to any of these.
One oddity is that there is a physical Stat – called Visceral – and then there is a skill called Physical that is linked to that stat. The specialities that you can take within Physical are Strength, Dexterity and Stamina. So that’s some stats… within a skill… within a stat. It sounds weird, but having it nested means that it works better than say Diaspora (FATE) where you roll up a character and then suddenly realise you have no Strength because that version of Fate has no stats and you forgot to buy Strength skill. At least Seraphim Fleet Redux’s way you’ve always got your base Visceral + Physical to fall back on, even if you didn’t buy the Strength specialism.
The system… Ah yes, the system. Well, there are lies, damned lies, and game designers who don’t understand statistics…
The system is to roll a number of d10s equal to your Stat, and try to get above a target number. That target number drops as your skill goes up. So someone with Computers 1 would be trying to get 25 on their dice roll, Computers 2 is aiming for 20, and Computers 3 would be 17 (that’s not a typo – it is 17 not 15). PCs also have a pool of Determination points to spend to lower the target number of a dice roll by 5. Players are going to burn through those Determination Points like it is going out of fashion! For instance, you may as well not even bother rolling if you have a Stat of 2 and a low Skill. After all, you are not going to be rolling 20 very often on 2d10, and 25 is impossible! Even a skill of 3 only gives you 10% chance of success if your stat is 2, and boosting that stat to 3 only increases your chances to 50%. Having a stat of 1 is listed as possible, but is utterly pointless unless you never intend to use any of the skills related to that stat since you’ll have ZERO chance of succeeding for any skill that is below 7 (and getting that skill of 7 would use up 28 of your 50 skill points allocation).
Also, when I say a skill of 7, I don’t really mean it. What the system actually gives you is a skill of 3 and then specialisms which you can buy up to 7. So you could have Combat (Fists) at 7, but you’d still be on 3 for Combat (Blades) or Combat (Blunt) unless you’d paid for those separately. I think that to make this system work you will need to either lower the target numbers significantly or dole out a LOT more stat points to spend during character generation – you only have 9 to spread between the three stats. Or find players who don’t mind failing lots and lots of dice rolls…
My brother’s comment on the system was that it seemed to have been designed by munchkins who put all the skills they like (melee, shooting, piloting, using honking big space guns, dodge) under one stat, and all the stuff they don’t care about (engineering, trade, talking to people) under the rest, so that they can use them as dump stats. From the way that the dice probabilities work out, the system certainly strongly encourages you to have stats of 1, 4 and 4. Or, as he pointed out, 1, 1 and 7…
Now as this game’s main focus was ships, we also tried out some ship combat. That didn’t really fill us with confidence. We picked a couple of interceptors from the ship list, started the combat… and realised that my brother’s ship could not damage my ship – or any ship in the book – because it had no weapons that can harm shields. So we had another go… and discovered that my ship could take down his shields by 1 point a round, which he would promptly regenerate at the end of said round. On our third attempt we finally used ships that could damage each other! Ship combat was okay after that, but this looks like a typical system where only the pilot and gunner get any fun in space battles. Though, to be fair, there are some massive ships with huge swathes of guns and missiles, so a dozen players could be gunners with a battery of weapons each if you picked those ones.
Again consulting the wisdom of my little brother, he felt that this was an RPG that someone had written to emulate a computer game like Eve or Elite. He complained that the character sheet needed the target numbers on it, so you don’t have to keep looking them up. Also, the ships listed don’t have their full stats, they just have a component list, so you have to flick to and fro in the book to find out what the numbers for an improved light hull or scout energy screen are. This may be to save space by not repeating the component info, but if so, at least put the stats in a table, so it would be a lot easier to reference them. Also he says the component list is very bland – every shield is just a bigger or better version of the one preceding on the list. There is no variety within a power level – everything is an upgrade, there’s no choice of fast versus powerful or long range versus energy efficient.
Unusually for most RPGs, there is a section giving advice on how to run a Seraphim Fleet Redux game by email. It suggests that would work best if each player had their own ship, instead of the party all being members of one crew. It has a nice breakdown of how to structure turns and gives lists of possible actions players could pick. There are mission templates for the play-by-email game and story hooks for the tabletop version. But the story hooks don't have much more info in them than what's already in the "what sort of game to run in which region" section of the book, so aren’t that much cop.
Overall, I think I’d give Seraphim Fleet Redux a 2 out of 5 – some bits are fine, but it will take a lot of work to flesh out the background and house rule the system out of whiffery. However, if I was more of a Gearhead, I might be tempted to score it 3 out of 5, for all those pages and pages of stuff to bolt onto your ship. My brother, who has gearhead tendencies, disagrees with the latter, saying that gearheads would like more crunch and more variety.