Game: Heart of the Machine
Publisher: Mystic Eye Games
Series: Dragonstar: d20
Review Dated: 7th, June 2003
Reviewer’s Rating: 8/10 [ Really good ]
Total Score: 8
Average Score: 8.00
This is a review of a pre-written scenario. If you don’t want spoilers then jump in your spaceship and buzz off. Heart of the Machine is a licensed Dragonstar game. As a licensed game it’s not written by Fantasy Flight Games but by Mystic Eye Games instead, that’s alright, Mystic Eye have already proven they can do this successfully enough with Raw Recruits.
The Heart of the Machine is nice and clean. The book has a nice feel to it, a crisp layout, a bold front cover, good quality paper and exceptionally sharp cartography. The 64-paged paperback adventure is split into three parts and designed for fourth level characters. GM tips presented in easy to spot “theme boxes” are on hand to make it easy to scale the adventure towards the nuances of the party. For example, a “Greater Than” note suggests adding an extra thug and warrior because the party’s combined levels is greater than the suggested default, in the same place a “Lesser Than” note suggests removing one warrior and a “Gunslingers” note comes into force if the group is blessed with several strong fighters places the thugs behind some parked vehicles and therefore in half cover. I’m going to wrinkle my nose at the “role-play heavy” group being catered for by the “Puzzles and Pits” theme box, but only a little wrinkle since the alterations are often role-playing twists and not actually a puzzle or a pit.
The plot is nice and flexible too. Actually, it’s a fairly standard set up but it’s one that works and works well. The players arrive at a planet not far from the Outlands or the players might already be there, GM’s choice, the book is kind enough to discuss both options and present plot hooks for both. The trouble starts when an NPC tells the characters about a kidnapping ring. And they’re caught. The problem with pre-written adventures (one of many) is that often they need a serious and frustrating amount of railroading or artificial coincidence to get going. It’s perfectly natural to have someone say something. In this case there’s the added and important safety catch in that if the group does their best to wash their hands of what they’ve discovered, or even if they give the would-be telltale the cold shoulder then he’s doomed to be re-captured by the gang. Once re-captured he’ll tell the gang out of spite, or perhaps to make life easier on himself, that the PCs know the secret. This set of events, pretty much however they play out, will set the gang against the characters. If the group decides to investigate the gang then this will take the adventure on to stage 2. A brave and proactive group might get around to investigating and breaking into the Jack 23 (the gang’s) headquarters. That’ll finish with a hi-speed chase and Heart of the Machine offers up a handy table of random encounters (turns, groups of pedestrians, long straights, etc) to help the GM keep the action going. An investigation of the gang’s headquarters will prove that they’ve been kidnapping people for an organisation carrying out illegal experiments on them. Good aligned groups or those smelling an adventure will continue on to the last part of the adventure and end up trying to break into the Marbuzi facility, trying to rescue the captives there and getting out before it explodes.
The Marbuzi are a new race. In fact, the Marbuzi are an intelligent but artificial race created by the Sel-tava from the thumbs of dead Sel-tava. The Marbuzi’s relationship with their parent race is succinctly summed up as “they do those experiments the Sel-tava don’t consider worth their personal attention but which are still too important to be left to anyone else”.
There’s as much new material as there is adventure in Heart of the Machine, in addition to the Marbuzi there are new spells, magic items, robots (Marbuzi ones), weapons, equipment, surface vehicles (hoverbikes, etc) and spacecraft. This is a book that’ll continue to support your Dragonstar games after you’ve run the adventure.
The book introduces more than just new crunch to your Dragonstar campaign. As the blurb points out there’s also new corporations and chain stores, flavour and setting material in other words. In truth there’s not very much of this, in terms of flavour, there’s only a taste. It’s good though. MacFolan’s has a solid claim as “The Galaxy’s General Store” and stocks everything from guns to gums. If you’re struggling to produce a distinct Dragonstar themed campaign then the addition of corporations will help. They’re an example of a social change that we’re familiar with but which is absent from high fantasy campaigns.
I’m not a fan of pre-written scenario but I most certainly am a fan of the way the adventure is presented in the Heart of the Machine. The book begins by describing the planet and the star port (where the adventure is set). There’s a sort tour of the city, a good map with key locations marked on it and then text supporting each. NPCs have their own goals, weaknesses, strengths and weaknesses. The city is alive and interesting long before the PCs start shooting punks. Stats for the NPCs are found in the end of the book. In the middle are the set of events and detailed locations (like the science lab or the gang’s base) the GM is likely to use in the game. I think it’s much better to present the would-be adventure as a framework, with all the pieces in place, so the GM can simply deal with how the players change the status quo through their actions. This is a far better, more mature, approach to adventure design than a set of rooms to explore or strictly linear events. In the Heart of the Machine the players can ignore as much of the adventure as they want (and the book’s not wasted because of all the new spells, equipment, etc) or investigate without feeling their being forced into doing so. It’s this that’s primarily responsible for Heart of the Machine’s high-for-a-pre-written-adventure score.
Mind you, it’s not perfect. I’d ban the word “You” and especially “You see” from text the GM is supposed to read to the players. Heart of the Machine doesn’t go as far as telling the players what their characters are doing, though. The game also relies on the party being fairly confidant and ready to get involved in events.
It’s worth noting the cartography. It really is good. Mystic Eye have Ed Bourelle of Skeleton Key Games back again for one of their books and he’s worth whatever they pay him. It’s a given to see his name on any “Best Cartography” shortlist.
If you want a neat, tidy and satisfying adventure then Heart of the Machine is well worth a look. If you’ve dragged your Dragonstar players up to about fourth level by hook and by crook and you’re in desperate need of something solid to continue from then the Heart of the Machine will do you proud.