Game: Spaceship Zero
Publisher: Green Ronin
Series: Spaceship Zero
Review Dated: 20th, December 2002
Reviewer’s Rating: 9/10 [ Something special ]
Total Score: 10
Average Score: 5.00
“But wait! That’s not all! Spaceship Zero also comes with its own original game system: a roleplaying game completely incompatible with other roleplaying systems! Toss away those troublesome twenty-sided dice! Hurl them at the bastions of conformity! We’ve seen the future, and we’re brining it to you today!”
That’s taken from the back of Spaceship Zero, the brand new RPG from Green Ronin. I did hurl my d20s; they bounced off the wall with a satisfying ricochet and scared the cat. I’m not sure about dealing the bastions of conformity though. Spaceship Zero uses a percentile system.
Perhaps you’ve already heard of Spaceship Zero? After all it was a successful radio play. A 1950s radio play. A German 1950s radio play. I think it’s only fair to award Spaceship Zero with the award for “Most Obscure License Ever”. I hadn’t heard of Spaceship Zero but I feel as if I’ve missed out, it seems like great fun and I certainly know Universe 2 and Earth 2 well enough now.
Given that the game is supposed to be closely tied to science fiction ideas spawned from the ‘50s I think the futuristic elements are remarkably fresh. Events like the clone war on Earth are part of the campaign history. SpaceCorp’s future success came to depend on the Better-Than-Light drive for spaceships being successful. The crew of the spaceship flying off Saturn are the heroes from the series. The Better-Than-Light drive isn’t successful; it’s the worst possible failure imaginable. The spaceship doesn’t move, instead the Better-Than-Light drive causes the ship to gain infinite mass. You know, like a black hole but possibly even more massive. Everybody and everything outside the spaceship dies; sucked into and crushed by the cosmic hole that the spaceship becomes. The ship is ground zero for the second big bang. The survivors, the only survivors in the universe, are the crew inside and they’re fairly screwed. But there’s a theory and it brings some hope. The theory suggests that there’s no reason why the universe will not develop in exactly the same way as it did before, after all there’s nothing to stop it doing just that, nothing’s changed – nothing except the presence of Spaceship Zero. The crew hibernates for about thirteen billion years. It’s a hibernation that has them broken down into a collection of pellets and stored. Luckily the Earth and the Universe have re-developed when they wake up. Everything’s fallen back into place nicely, oh, except the alien Hydronauts have invaded.
If you think all that sounds rather far-fetched then don’t worry. You’re not the only one. Spaceship Zero is a far-fetched game. It’s drama, a space opera and a comedy. It’s comedic because of the intelligently zany elements in it. On the other hand the game is far more gritty and dirty than the polished plastic of StarTrek. It’s up to the ZM, the Zero Meister, to play up or play down these elements as he and the players want. You could play Spaceship Zero as a straight-laced and serious sci-fi game or you could try your hand at playing the whole thing in the style of a 50s radio drama.
Do you have to play the game as Captain Stackhorse, Gearbox, Professor Ashton and navigator Dick Ross as the original crew of the spaceship though? No. And that’s another important success. It seems likely that you’re going to play the game with, in or around Spaceship Zero but you don’t have to do that either. A suggestion that the book itself mentions is that you could all be loincloth clad escaped slave girls who have stolen the ship. You could equally play without the spaceship as human resistance on Earth 2 against the Hydronauts. I think playing with spaceship zero would be more interesting though; you could flick the switch for the Better-Than-Light drive, murder the entire universe again and wait for Earth 3 to evolve – that would have the ZM making frantic notes!
Spaceship Zero is one of those books that after the introduction puts character generation in first, then the game mechanics and then the information on the universe, a space beastiary, extra rules (space madness) and an introductory adventure. The book’s a joy to read. It’s witty and on the ball but the jokes don’t come at the expense of clarity. I’m not a rule monkey (or even a super-intelligent monkey) but I didn’t blink or puzzle at any of the mechanics in the book. Not even at the advanced rules. It is a thorough system. You build your character by assigning points to a few attributes and rather more skills. Your template, your rough character class if you must see it that way, alters how many points you get to spend and where you get to spend them. Your brains (the attribute) also increase or decrease your skill points. An important game mechanic are zero points; which you collect by rolling zeroes on your 2d10 percentile and spend to assist your dice rolls. With zero points there are times when you can be heroic and get away with it. I said game mechanics are thorough; armour has different resistance ratings against kinetic (clubs) damage and energy (laser blasts), you’ve rules for terrestrial and aerial combat, even terrestrial versus aerial combat. There are different levels of damage, types of damage and rules for healing your robotic friends. Spaceship Zero uses degrees of success! There are rules for how far and fast you can move in combat time and when not to bother. All this is peppered with meaningful and powerful optional rules. The book has a wealth of rules – and yet the underpinning system is simple. I didn’t get the feeling that I’d struggle to use any of the optional extras. I didn’t find myself drowning under a tide of game mechanics. Despite the careful and detailed descriptions of the game mechanics, it is as if the game is light on rules.
The wealth of rules is important, I think. Too many sci-fi games pick one element for their core book and then expect you to buy supplements. I don’t get that feeling with Spaceship Zero. I’m content that any likely situation is covered; be that space combat, mud wrestling with slave girls in the gladiator pits, a ray gun fight, a car chase or an old fashioned head-butting contest.
By the time you’re at chapter nine you know all the rules you’ll need, all the rules you’re likely to need and you’ll feel as if you know the setting rather well. The setting, the best bit, is only just beginning. The Secret World of Spaceship Zero launches into a history of the Hydronaut empire, the biology and sociology of the aliens and their technology too. You have access to what Earth 2 is currently like. There’s a great map of the globe and it shows how the water levels have risen due to the Hydronauts. Also marked are the danger areas like Hell Lake and the Hydronaut Hot Zones. You also have other sorts of plot seeds marked on the map, places where the humans aren’t quite beaten yet, places like The Refuge. The game follows the main plot from the first Spaceship Zero series. There are notes on what happens when Spaceship Zero returns and what the continued course of action of factions and NPCs are likely to be. In fact, you don’t even have to play on Earth; Mars 2 and Pluto 2 are great locations as well.
I think the Space Bestiary serves to steady the courage of many fantasy fans that might have turned to Spaceship Zero to try something new. It’s reassuring to see that there are still a host of monsters and monstrous aliens to encounter – and fight. Those Hydronauts do get a kick out of putting human gladiators up against horrible space beasts. The best bit of this chapter is the clean and complete section on how to design your own monster. Creating your own horrible alien seems like something every ZM will want to do and this chapter makes it easy to do just that.
Then there are weapons, armour and equipment – human and hydronaut. Given the initial effects of the aliens attack it is likely that your game will use both hi-tech weapons and primitive weapons.
The book comes to a close by offering first a chapter of help for ZMs and then an introductory adventure. The rules for space madness and the side effects for the deconstruction that takes place whenever the crew hibernates creates something of a mild Lovecraftian feel for the game – at least, I think so. I would rather there was something else in the book than an introductory adventure but I’ll grudgingly concede that I can see why the authors thought one was necessary.
Spaceship Zero is a good game. It manages to be a breath of fresh air, different and yet not too different.
You’re getting good value for money. It’s not a colour book. Shame. It’s a 192-paged book and will hurt your wallet for US$24.95 and that’s not too bad at all. There are plenty of illustrations and the text density is good.
Spaceship Zero is unlikely to be wildly successful. Spaceship Zero is unlikely to be wildly successful because most people won’t know what the hell it is or why they should pick it up and give the game a go. It’ll be tragic if the game isn’t wildly successful because it’s good enough to be a run away success.
What’s this? There was no radio play? But, but, but… Brand new movie? Right! I’m taking that prize for “Most Obscure License Ever!” back.