RPG Reviews – The Expanse

The Expanse Roleplaying Game – Green Ronin Publishing

What do you get when you have a sci-fi RPG campaign that turns into a series of novels, then into an acclaimed and beloved television series, then back into an RPG written by veterans of the industry and powered by a solid and easy-to-learn game system? You get The Expanse by Green Ronin Publishing.

The Expanse is based off the series of science fiction novels by James S.A. Corey (pen name for Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck). Following the beleaguered crew of the ship Rocinante and a number of other characters, it’s an epic story of the future of our solar system, filled with intrigue, action, and mystery. The setting is diverse, lush, and imaginative and is unsurprisingly well-suited for a roleplaying game. The book has great production values, lavish and diverse art with great representation and sensible clothing, and an excellent acquisition for people new to roleplaying games (though I won’t be covering “What is a roleplaying game” in this review).

It’s a simple complex system…

The Expanse operates off Green Ronin’s AGE rules system. It’s simple and elegant, capable of supporting numerous iterations (having been used for  the Adventure, Dark, and Romantic Fantasy genres, as well as modern settings), straightforward to learn and customize. It’s a roll-high system, where challenge Tests are performed by rolling 3 six-sided dice, adding the results, and comparing to a Target Number representing the relative difficulty of the challenge (Average 11). You add your Ability Score and any relevant Focus (area of specialization) to your die roll, and this lets you handle all sorts of Standard and Opposed Tests, as well as those that take place over time. Where it gets interesting is that one of those dice is distinctive (a different color for example), known as the Drama Die. If you roll doubles on any of the three dice you generate Stunt Points equal to the number showing on the Drama Die. These can be spent on Stunts – special effects related to the kind of challenge. These can allow characters to disarm, physically move opponents, expedite tasks, improve social test results – there’s a wealth of options useful in a great number of situations. What’s especially great about the use of Stunts is how they help manage special actions. Rather than figure out a penalty ahead of time, say for a disarm attempt, you roll your attack and attempt the disarm only if the opportunity presents itself (you roll a Stunt). This helps to keep things moving and mitigates choice paralysis. It also helps foster dynamic elements in a scene, especially for players who like assistance in describing the results of rolls.

The Expanse divides game play into encounters and interludes. Interludes are the events between Encounters – the downtime and upkeep phase where characters refresh, compose themselves, perform maintenance activities, and prepare for their next big scene. Encounters are what we would look at as challenge scenes, based on action/combat, exploration/investigation, and social challenges. There are a wealth of Stunts for each kind of encounter, which is great considering how much of the AGE system ties into them, and each type of encounter receives almost equal space, giving them equal weight in the narrative. Combat seems suitably deadly, and for those familiar with the AGE system, there’s an interesting new element involving Fortune Points – a mechanic used in a few places during the game to allow some narrative control. Any final damage taken must be reduced by spending Fortune Points, and if any is left over the player takes Injured and Wounded Conditions (special effects that modify a character temporarily), in order to further reduce the damage. If one can’t, they are Taken Out of the encounter – though a player may choose to “Roll Over” earlier and take themself out, deciding their own Condition with the agreement of the GM. This helps represent a more lethal universe via a creative narrative mechanic.

Considering the role diplomacy plays in the series, having a robust and manageable Social Conflict system seems important. As luck would have it, the Social Conflict system covers the basics (single roll binary result tests) to more complex, drawn out negotiations, where those involved jockey for position back and forth. There’s almost two pages of Stunts to accompany Social Encounters, meaning the AGE system gets another sphere in which to shine.

A lot of past in my past…

Characters are made up of Ability Scores like Accuracy, Communication, Fighting, Intelligence, etc., to represent their inherent abilities in certain fields. These are represented as a plus or minus modifier which will adjust your test roll. There are no skills, instead those have been replaced by Foci (Focuses?) which are linked to certain Ability Scores and provide a +2 modifier to the die roll when relevant. These are written as Fighting (Heavy Weapons) or Strength (Might). It’s simple, it’s easy-to-understand, and just as easy to mod on-the-fly!

Characters also gain Talents, which are special three-tiered abilities allowing specialization in Artistry and Craftsmanship, Piloting and Mechanics, Fighting Styles and Social interactions.

The Expanse is a level-based system, so as characters advance, they are given opportunities to improve in specific areas (like Ability Scores, Focuses, and Talents (moving up to the next level), but they also acquire Specializations, which are refined “professional areas”, allowing further development of characters and opening up new Talent-like abilities. Talents, and by extension Specializations, typically give new Stunts, reduce the costs of Stunts, or offer bonuses to other rolls. As each only has the three tiers, you aren’t overwhelmed with a ton of options to track.

Character creation is accomplished by choosing your origin (Belter, Earth, Martian), rolling for your Ability Scores, then rolling on a number of tables for your Background elements, like Social Class and Profession, which will grant additional Focuses and Ability increases. Concession is given to those who may not want to roll and Point distribution is presented as an option for Ability Scores; while choosing options off the tables is also permitted. Presenting random character creation first is good, I feel, as it helps newcomers not be overwhelmed with the options, or worry about maximizing choices – what they roll is what they get. By using soft archetypes it’s easier to get a full picture of your character, where they came from, and who they are now.

Badass Gunships

As is fitting for any sci-fi setting there’s a chapter dedicated just to technology. Readers/viewers will be familiar with some of it I’m sure, but it’s nice to have it all together for reference. Special attention is given to communication methods across the System, and the rigors of space travel – how crews handle food and water, radiation and the physical travails of their environment, and outfit their vessel to pretend they’re not trapped in a metal box in the void. Weapons and armor offer basic minimal options so customization instead can come from the application of qualities and flaws. Those traits also apply to other tech, so you can replicate the feeling of scrimping to buy a “clunker”. As is typical for most modern-future-set games, resources and Lifestyle are numerical stats and are used for acquisition rolls, meaning one doesn’t have to track each individual unit of currency.

Naturally, there’s an expansive section on spaceships. While most travel will be handled via an interlude, The Expanse continues its track record of working with hard science by explaining the mechanics behind space travel in this universe. It’s also useful to handle any dispute centered around physics and travel that may arise. Much like other technology and equipment ships gain Qualities and Flaws to represent unique elements like notable Maneuverability, Flawed systems, Hidden Compartments, etc. Ship combat is handled similarly to personal combat, with plenty for everyone in the crew to do: pilots, engineers or other techheads, commanders – it even includes Stunts relevant to ship combat. It’s not really any more complicated than personal combat and there’s a very good example of play to help illustrate how all the steps play out.

The Planets, delivered...

Though reading the books or watching the TV series will give you a very grounded sense of the world of The Expanse, there’s thorough background information on Earth, Mars, the Belt (including a lexicon for Belter Creole), and the Outers. You’re given insight into the history of each place, the social structures, mentalities, and notable figures (including statistics for the protagonists of The Expanse. As the game takes place between the first two novels of the series, Leviathan Wakes and Caliban’s War, all information is restricted to that timeline.

Compare yourself to Genghis Khan…

The Gamemaster’s section is presented very well. The language and terminology is geared towards people who may be running a game for the first time, so how to handle tests, how to manage tests rolled in secret, or the concept of “game master fiat” are all addressed. A feature new to the AGE system (that I’m aware of) is The Churn. This is a pool of points that builds up through play due to player actions. While points can be spent by the Gamemaster to hinder the players, if left alone the points will increase to a level where minor to epic setbacks will occur in the narrative, representing the buildup of tensions and massive downswings in the fortunes of the protagonists. While I think it’s an awesome mechanic, I can see this one being the most difficult for a new Gamemaster to manage smoothly, though some advice is given on how to make use of it.

Guidance on the actual logistics of gaming is included – play styles and how to manage a group, location, notes and distributing game information – there’s a treasure trove of Gamemaster tips here for the new player, and some great reminders for old hands. Even if you’re an RPG veteran, it can never hurt to have these elements rephrased, as it might cause you to look at things differently. In addition, there are some handy tips for how to manage a game in a licensed universe with an existing canon.

Speaking of new players vs. old, I think The Expanse does an excellent job of presenting an RPG for new players. Honestly, I think all licensed games should be written assuming the people reading them are, at best, tacitly familiar with the concept of a role-playing game. After all, if you’re creating a game based off a popular media property, aren’t you trying to attract fans of the property and not just established gamers? This is an area in which I feel The Expanse succeeds admirably. Everything from the layout and presentation of the game, to how each chapter progresses into the other, to the Gamemaster section, is all structured in a way to facilitate gameplay for those entirely new to RPGs. Adding more narrative elements to the AGE system, even among the crunch, is helpful, as the frame of reference of an Expanse fan will be from a dramatic medium. That being said, the writing is so good it doesn’t come across as an introductory product, and any gamer would benefit from reading sections they may already feel they are comfortable with.

A Half-Assed Apocalypse…

One can be given all the tools to run a great game of The Expanse but then not know exactly what to do with them. Thankfully there’s a whole chapter dedicated to using these rules to actually play a game of The Expanse. Starting with the most important (but often overlooked) “talk to your players and find out what kind of series they want to play, as well as what elements of The Expanse they enjoy), this chapter explores the themes of the books as well as different kinds of series frameworks from Freelancers (Traders, Smugglers), to Military (including mercenaries), to Political series – including plot hooks for each framework. There are even suggestions for how to develop the setting in your own direction and deviate from the canon, while still maintaining the themes of the universe. One of the nicest parts of this chapter is the breakdown of Leviathan Wakes as a series arc – throughout the whole book examples are drawn from events in the stories to illustrate game concepts. It’s an incredibly useful method.

I highly recommend The Expanse. It’s a solid science fiction game with a great license and setting behind it. The rules are easy to pick up and allow a lot of interesting gameplay, and the additions to the AGE system are delightful. It feels very comprehensive, like nothing was left in the cutting room floor, though I’m very interested to see what will be included in upcoming releases for the game.

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