I backed Nibiru at Kickstarter. It was a natural impulse. The sci-fi game looked gorgeous, and the campaign pitch oozed intelligence.
The game is by Federico Sohns, who currently works at Modiphius so is no stranger to professional RPGs, and is based in London. Honestly, Nibiru feels like the sort of Kickstarter success that Modiphius has a habit of talent scouting anyway. As it stands right now, Nibiru is an indie RPG. Let’s see what happens.
I’m glad I ordered the hardback. I don’t have that yet, just the first release of the PDF, but I can see it’s as beautiful and as unusual as I wanted.
It’s also far darker, more mature and thoughtful than I expected. This is not a casual ‘your first RPG’ game. Nibiru is a game to approach if you’re an experienced gamer, able to step up to cooperative storytelling and a cool head in deadly combat.
In one way, Nibiru is hard sci-fi. It thinks carefully about what life would be like on a huge spaceship that’s home to a million people. Gravity, for example, plays a vital role in the game. There’s a very unusual character sheet, and the visual ‘backbone’ of it is a tracker of how you’re holding up compared to the local gravity.
On that same character sheet, you may also notice you have three physical health slots; okay, beaten and then wounded, and three mind health slots; okay, stressed and shaken. Given that it is possible to take three damage in one hit, physical or mental, Nibiru is also ‘hard’ in the sense that it’s deadly.
Unusually, the game uses d4s as the main dice. That’s one of the reasons why it’s brutal. The mechanics don’t mess around.
I’d argue that Contested Rolls are more common than the game’s “Normal Roll” system, so I’ll tell you how those work first. Roll 3d4 and add in any modifiers. Whoever rolls highest wins. If you’ve beaten so severely that your total is half your opponent’s, then you take two damage. If it’s less than a third of your opponent’s, then you receive three damage. Modifiers, therefore, even a reasonably common +1, are very helpful! Each bonus adds a dice.
In a Normal Roll you’re looking to count up any 4s you roll on the d4. You need one for success.
Bravely, there aren’t any skill lists in Nibiru. It’s up to your GM/storyteller and the style of the group to determine what they are. For example, perhaps your gaming group tends to get into the details of combat. You might find yourself developing characters with +1 to long swords or +1 to vehicle-mounted guns or +2 to Thai kickboxing. Alternatively, perhaps your group tends to focus more on diplomacy and betrayal. In that case, your characters might have the far more generic +1 to melee, or +2 to unarmed combat, or +1 guns instead.
That works wonderfully for me now. It would have terrified me thirty years ago when I first started to GM and would study every rule carefully to make sure I understood the intent of the game designer.
Those deadly little d4s though are not the heart of Nibiru’s system. Memories are.
Characters earn memory points by playing sessions and some in-game actions. Yeah, a bit like experience points. Nibiru calls it the MEMOs system.
Your character can remember something from (what’s probably a) past life and therefore earn a +1, +2 or +3 modifier on it. Those +3s are very expensive.
Equally, your character can suffer a negative memory, take a forever penalty on a thing and earn memory points back. Negative memories are one of the reasons the subtitle of this review is “nightmare fuel”.
These memories are recorded on the second page of your character sheet. They’re typically written down by you unless your character is suffering from delusions in which case your GM might twist it slightly. I recommend writing at least four sentences for each memory as this makes buying mechanical advantages cheaper later one. That, I think, will spark some debate.
When you fill-up a page of memories then your character – known as a Vagabond – unlocks a new power. These powers are known as Revelations and need to be bought with memory points.
One Revelation lets you dump memories into items and therefore forget them. You can use this to get rid of negative memories. You can eat the item later to regain the memory. Another Revelation lets the Vagabond create mass and potent hallucinations related to one of their memories. A third enables you to draw rather than write in your memory journal (drawings count as at least four lines).
The system makes PCs pretty powerful compared to the average humans on board the mighty Nibiru if given time to prepare. However, the system has no shortage of artificial intelligence in steel forms (i.e. robots), and our heroes/villains are certainly nowhere near the top of the food chain. In fact; PCs will spend many games trying to lay low and hide.
The world of Nibiru
Nibiru is a vast spaceship floating through space. I know more than that, but to share would be a spoiler. What’s worth noting is that answers to big questions aren’t in the book. Why is there is a gigantic spaceship floating through space? That’s up to you.
There’s a strange creature in it, somewhere, known as the Leviathan which is connected to all the other non-human life.
There’s a virus that travels between AIs, leaving the language of the ancient machines in its wake.
Some Vagabonds can cough up nightmares, spitting out the gaseous creature from where it resides inside them.
There are different zones of gravity within the colossal ship, many impossible for humans to venture in to, but there are now colonies in the higher and lower gravity areas. Tension, of course, is beginning to build as these cultures evolve and separate over time.
There are thousands of years of history, fallen empires, secrets, betrayals and prophecies around the habitation zones that support humanity.
Flora and fauna in Nibiru evolved to feed off the ship’s incredible power supply. These creatures might have dagger tipped tails that sink into the metal floors and spike into the electrical currents. Some animals, though, are stranger parasites and live off human hosts or eat the very steel of the ship.
The mermaids are freaky.
There’s a secret society which has tendrils of influence across the known inhabited portions of the ship. This society has all sorts of interests, but one is to be on the lookout for Vagabonds. As a result, the PCs have to keep their heads down and lay low. It actually gives the game a bit of an original World of Darkness in space vibe.
Characters are amnesiacs known as vagabonds, but that’s dramatically rather what’s going on.
Some of these people weren’t people before they woke up and started the long process of regaining their memories. Somewhere AIs that were infected and then left by the AI-virus that travels the huge ship in search of something.
Yeah, these former machines are now human. Somehow.
Other vagabonds have some from some mysterious part of the ship where they were some part of a library of memories. Where the human then? Now they are, having woken up elsewhere on Nibiru in a body.
If you want to really tap into nightmare fuel, some of the vagabonds come from a coffin-shaped secret compartment that’s the experiment of some mad genius. They’re spawned of hellish nightmares and their bodies, when they surface elsewhere, sometime later, have a physical nightmare host inside them.
Where the Vagabond came from is important. These places are probably on Nibiru (it’s up to the storyteller), but some are hard to fathom. Nibiru is a skyless spaceship, a sealed unit and yet some of these vagabonds are from a bright village of sunny skies, friendly people and a caring community. Is that somewhere on the ship? What do these people need to do to go back to that paradise?
This RPG is carefully and professionally presented and formated. It’s a two-column format, easy to read and with no shortage of top-class art.
The game is smart, it’s a tabletop experience for mature and well-read players. In other words; it’s not an easy read. For example, there’s just one line that in the hundreds of pages that says the system uses d4.
I had to read it twice, once with the aid of text-to-speech on the Kindle reader, before I felt confident enough to write this review. That’s not to say the game uses purple prose, it uses plain English, or is impregnable, it’s just different, thorough and does not offer much in the way of training wheels.
Nibiru begins with a history of the human populations. On my first read, I thought I understood why; because memory and history would be necessary to the vagabonds. Of course, on my second reading, I knew that the vagabonds had memories of very different places.
It’s perhaps slightly odd that Sohns goes deep on some of the habitations but prefers to skip some of the bigger mysteries. Odd, but not a show stopper. I might not know much about BrightTown, but I know all that I need to about the backbone through the ship – The Torus.
I don’t think a game has made me think “Oh, that’s clever” like Nibiru since I last read The Whispering Vault. I did that back in 2003. Nibiru is a once in a decade RPG.
It’s a once in a decade RPG that’s almost entirely very good. I feel like it’s a huge animal that Federico Sohns had to wrestle into submission for us.
Would it benefit from two more expert and hugely talented editors or game designers, who can devote hours to tweaking and assisting it? Yes. There’s that feeling that Nibiru is never more than a few pages away from getting away from you and running wild. We never cross that line, though, Sohns tames the beast and delivers the game.
Overall, I have to recommend it.
But only if you trust your gaming group to be mature and thoughtful. You have to love failure as much as success in this game.
You can get the Nibiru RPG quickstart free on DriveThruRPG.
What do you think? Measured observations are welcome and you can leave them in the comment section below.