I would like to preface this review by saying that I am a huge fan of the Expanse franchise, that being both the original book series and the subsequent television adaptation.
As such, I felt both excitement and trepidation in getting the opportunity to review The Expanse Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook by Green Ronin Publishing. Would it live up to my lofty expectations?
For those of you who haven’t indulged in any of the many versions of this sci-fi masterpiece (there’s books, graphic novels, a television series and even a board game) created by James S.A. Corey – the pen name of authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck – you’ve been missing out, but you don’t need to have any foreknowledge to enjoy the roleplaying game, although doing so might enhance the experience.
The core rulebook starts off with a short story by Corey, ‘The Last Flight of the Cassandra’, which is used as a hook to draw the players into the premise, and what a premise it is. For those of you unfamiliar with Corey’s works, the discovery of a new form of propulsion, the Epstein Drive, opens up our solar system for exploration (and exploitation).
There are three significant factions, the United Nations (Earthers), the Mars Congressional Republic (Martians) and the Outer Planetary Alliance (Belters). Earth has long suffered from overpopulation and ever-dwindling resources. The Epstein Drive affords an opportunity for colonists to depart for Mars to terraform the planet and miners to head for the asteroid belt to plunder it. Over time, Martian colonists grow resentful of their links to Earth and gain independence and the Belters grow weary of working hard to provide resources for the benefit of the inner planets. The Martian’s develop an impressive fleet of warships to defend themselves and a number of Belters turn to terrorism to fight the oppression that they feel they have been subjected to. Here we have a hotbed of conflict and intrigue that is fertile ground for the imagination, which this core rulebook more than adequately captures.
This roleplaying game takes place during the events of the first two books, Leviathan Wakes and Caliban’s War. It uses the AGE (Adventure Game Engine) system, and this was my first experience of it.
One of the core principles of this is the use of three dice, two of a matching colour and one of a different colour, known as the Drama Die. This can be used in a number of ways, for example, when encountering a double on any two of the die on a successful roll, the number on the Drama Die counts as ‘stunt’ points. These must be spent immediately on one or more stunts (depending on the number of stunt points and the compatibility of resulting actions) that can be drawn from a rather large pool of stunts that are available across a range of categories. This mechanic brings an interesting variable into the gameplay, elevating combat, although some GMs might dislike the extra element of randomness that is introduced here.
On that note, character levelling is entirely at the discretion of the GM, which may be fine for seasoned GMs, although less experienced GMs might have appreciated the assistance of levelling indicators to help them decide when to make that call. Still, there is a GM specific section of the rulebook that covers both generic and specific advice on running the game, going into further detail on such things as themes and frameworks, and advice on how to keep to, or deviate from, the canon of the books.
Another interesting mechanic is Fortune Points. These can be spent to influence other elements in the game, such as the value of a rolled die. Now, while this sounds like a potentially overpowered mechanic, fortune points also double as hit points, so players have to be careful balancing opportunity with consequence.
There is also an optional mechanic called the Churn, monitored using a Churn Track. This represents a build-up of fate, determining that if you’re having a bad day, perhaps it’s not bad enough, escalating things from bad to worse. This can be triggered by various actions (such as a character spending four or more stunt points to perform a stunt), which progress the track by one (there are a total of 30 segments on the track). The churn track is split into three main sections focusing on minor, major and epic setbacks and is reset at the end of each adventure or if the end of the track is reached.
On some of the more basic fronts, character creation is fairly straightforward and while there aren’t a hugely diverse pool of weapons and equipment to choose from, additional depth is provided by the introduction of item qualities and flaws. Spaceship mechanics are reasonably simple, certainly enough to engage players without slowing down gameplay, but stunt actions can also come into play during ship-to-ship combat to keep things varied and interesting.
The artwork of the rulebook is pleasing, easily conjuring a sense of the characters or locations therein (although, when it comes to Chrisjen Avasarala, I infinitely prefer the television portrayal by the beautiful Shohreh Agadashloo over the more fearsome-looking representation in the rulebook).
Interestingly, what became the Expanse franchise was originally conceived as a roleplaying game, so seeing it come full circle and return to its roots is gratifying. James S.A. Corey was consulted with regards to development and story for the core rulebook and it shows. There is a rich, researched depth in the detail provided and it offers a versatile and expansive (pun intended) range of play styles and options. I also enjoyed my first encounter with the AGE system and thought it worked very well here.
If you’re a veteran fan of James S.A. Corey’s works there’s a lot to like in Green Ronin’s The Expanse Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook, but even if you’re not, there’s plenty here to give you the foundation you need to immerse yourself in the world(s) created. With a rulebook like this as part of your gaming arsenal, the only limitation is your own imagination, and if you’re here reading this, I doubt that’s going to be a problem for you.
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