RPG Reviews – The Stars Are Fire

The Stars Are Fire is a comprehensive companion to the Cypher System roleplaying game, focusing on science-fiction gaming in all forms. In addition to providing a deep analysis of the genre and how to apply it to Cypher games, it also provides a built-in setting “The Revel”, as a practical example of the book’s content.

One of the strong parts of the book is in the first few pages (and scattered throughout the text). It’s advice for running sci-fi games. Now you might think, well, isn’t that the point of this book? And yes, it is, but this is specifically GM advice for science-fiction gaming rather than content. It’s things like “how do you predict future trends and technology, how do you deal with a discrepancy between player and character knowledge when it comes to hard science and such?” These are legitimate questions for any game but are easier to handwave in fantasy – sci-fi tends to be more highly scrutinized. It’s written with a clear voice of experience and is definitely an asset to the book.

As an overview of the science fiction genre The Stars Are Fire includes a chapter on every trope, genre, and subgenre. The entries don’t get really deep dives, but enough to help spark adventure ideas and game concepts – and if you need a nudge, most have an example setting attached to them. These “starters” range from the grim coldness of the postapocalyptic “Empty World” to the more conventional alternate dimension “Eleventh Reich” or the delightfully Tron-like “Omega Network” (I can hear the Daft Punk now). As someone who feels well-versed in sci-fi tropes, the sample settings are my favorite part of this chapter, as they’re presented very evocatively. The following chapter discusses conflicts, and gives 100 possibilities for you to use in the setting you’ve chosen. They’re not all applicable to each subgenre, but most can be adapted if they aren’t 100% matches. This sort of thing is always useful, whether you’re a novice GM needing a guiding hand or a veteran with writer’s block.

I used to think that sci-fi games were well-served by having precise, simulationist rules. These days I would actually favor more narrative systems, as they make it easier to deal with the various problems of scientific knowledge and ability. Why bother trying to get it as exact as you can when what you’re really after is the narrative result? Plus it makes it easier to spout technobabble. Cypher does a very good job at cutting through to the effect, so the rules sections of The Stars Are Fire build on that strength. Vehicular combat is expanded on to accommodate spacecraft and “bridge crew” scenes, status and circumstantial effects are detailed out through the use of Intrusions and Special Effects, and there are sections on incorporating psionic or posthuman elements into your game, expanding on what’s in the core rules.

There’s also a wealth of equipment, vehicles, and spacecraft to use, along with interpretations of them as “Artifacts”, for those with special function. The logistics of space travel and combat are included, accommodating the rigors of hard science fiction to the looser nature of space opera. The bestiary includes some sci-fi standards like “space marines”, cyborgs, and artificial intelligences, as well as some creative entries like infovores, fatal malware, and photonomorphs (beings that can create matter from light).

At least a third of the book contains the setting “The Revel.” Set in the 24th century, it’s a relatively hard science fiction universe presenting the earlier-discussed archetypes of the genre in a cohesive setting. There are megacorporation-owned space settlements, hives of scum and villainy, lunar colonies ruled by an Artificial Intelligence, Martian farmers and frontierspeople, cloud cities of Venus, extrasolar colonies, and an isolated, destroyed Earth – victim of 10-year old “Event”, which is the source of the metaplot for the setting. Faster-than-light travel is currently severely limited, with only 7 starships in the universe capable of it. The “secrets” chapter is clearly identified, revealing the deeper mysteries of The Revel. I really loved reading about them, and think they complement the setting perfectly.

There’s a great deal of usable information – on culture, commerce, travel, and religion. It’s written as an RPG setting, with an eye on what players and GMs will require to help the game run smoothly.

I appreciate the inclusion of a chapter on “how to get PCs involved in The Revel”, I just wish it had been longer. It only presents “Agents of Luna Intelligence” as a series concept, when it could maybe have offered more detail on PCs who are members of StarForce (the interplanetary military organization), or far-off explorers, political intrigue among the wealthy of Venus, and so on. It’s nice that consideration is given to PC home bases, downtime, and income though (the latter especially as related to them owning a spacecraft). There aren’t many new character options (1 Descriptor) but I think that goes to show how comprehensive the main book is in that more aren’t needed.

Three sample scenarios are provided – two “Shorts” (mostly skeletons and frameworks) involving PCs in a prison ship that comes under attack, or as a landing party making planetfall on an alien world. The full adventure is more tied into The Revel, though can be adapted to other settings, of course. It’s a tense scenario of investigation and action, that contains seeds for future plotlines and makes use of new rules and frameworks introduced earlier in the book.

One thing I really want to highlight is how much I appreciate the layout work done in Monte Cook Games’ books. This has two-column text with standard type size, with great use of the margins. Any notation or page reference appears there, so if something is mentioned in the text of the page, this points out that a) it has import, and b) where to find it. Because Cypher System statblocks can be really small, NPC, creature, or obstacle stats can be included there in a few lines. As a PDF these references are also hyperlinked, so you can jump right to where they’re found. It’s really smart design and extremely helpful for scenarios.

For your far-future Cypher System needs, pick up The Stars Are Fire from the below Affiliate links and help support this site!

DriveThruRPG (PDF)

Noble Knight Games (Print)


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