If you thrill to the galaxy-spanning adventures of the likes of the Lensmen, then this is a ruleset worth considering. Sweeping empires, exploration and intrigue, it's all here. The Introduction describes the variety of science-fiction that inspired the game, and the themes that are important: the sense of wonder, rather than cynicism or grim realism. It's also designed to be flexible and modular, so you can pick and choose what works for you without running the risk of breaking the ruleset. Benevolent empire or corrupt republic? Notes of relevance to one type of setting or another are separated out so you can determine which to use.
Next comes an overview of the core mechanic for the game, called 12°. In this, whatever you are attempting, roll equal to or under a 'target number' on 2d12 to succeed. The target number is based on two appropriate abilities or skills that your character has, with the application of modifiers if needed. Nice and straightforward: the art being, of course, in selecting the abilities, skills and modifiers to use! Delving further the system allows for opposed tasks and dramatic successes/failures. And the name of the system? Well, the degree of your success can be very important!
Then we get down to Chapter 2: Character Creation. A point-build system is used, starting with a core 25 points to spend on abilities. Then you choose a species, a homeworld and 3 levels of career - each providing bonus points to spend on skills and abilities. Hence a flexible system in which it is possible to play whatever you have in mind. Sample species are provided, but with detail on how they have been built so you can come up with your own or adapt ones from your favourite novel or film. The examples are spledidly exotic: sentient palm trees, tri-laterally symetrical arrogant arthropod-like beings... each with sufficient background detail that they could be role-played effectively. Your choice of homeworld gives you a 'package' that reflects the sort of civilisation in which you were raised. Disappointingly, exotics such as high or low gravity worlds, atmospheric variations or asteroid habitats are not covered - it would be easy enough to add them, and they can provide useful background skills for spacefarers. Then a range of career packages - available as novice, veteran or advanced - give you your professional skills from whatever you have been doing before beginning the game. You get three levels, so can specialise in one profession or have breadth rather than depth. There's quite a range described, and each has sufficient options to allow for customisation. To round things off, you need to choose 5 'hooks' which can be characteristics, associations, people or events from your past that are significant to you. One comes from your species, one from your homeworld and the rest from your career choices. As well as helping you breathe life into your character, you can use them to advantage during adventures by calling on one to allow use of an Action Point to twist things in your favour.
Chapter 3 covers Skills, Hooks and Psionics. Basically it goes into skills and the way they work in the game in detail. There's more about the actual game mechanics as well as detailed descriptions of the skills available, and ways in which you can specialise once you reach a high enough level in each skill. There is a further discourse on choosing and using hooks, and an explanation of how psionics are acquired and how they work in the game... and there is a whole bunch of specific abilities you can learn.
Next is Chapter 4: Action. Despite the Asimov quote "Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent" (the whole book is littered with aposite quotes from science fiction) that heads the chapter, it is all about combat and how to run it using the 12° ruleset. Combat leads, not surprisingly, to injury... as well as diseases, poisons and other such nasties as radiation and the effects of vacuum on the unprotected. It rounds off with the mechanics of social interaction, although role-playing rather than game mechanics work best here.
And now, the all-important sf toys - Chapter 5: Technology, Equipment and Starships. Armour (including the all-important space suit) and weapons start us off, with exotic computer kit, biosculpting, chemicals of all sorts and more intriguing technology to follow. Breathe underwater, see through solid walls, even deflect projectiles... get the right gear and you can!
Starships are also covered, along with the Dillingham Drive which make interstellar travel possible. Entry into the D-space it uses can only be accomplished at a jump point, and the time there seems to bear little relationship to how far you travel: it all sounds a bit confused. You cannot engage in combat while in D-space, but you certainly can in normal space and the rules for starship combat come next... followed by brief details of the types of ships available.
Chapter 6 looks at Setting Design. This starts at the planet level. Naturally, you may just want to design worlds as you see fit, but there are tables to roll on if you want random planets or need something to start you thinking. From individual worlds, you can then move on to designing sectors. Hmm. One planet per sun? Or just add the other components of the system as you wish - asteroid belts, gas giants, little hot or cold rocky worlds... Anyway, a sector is not an astronomical area but a group of worlds connected by jump points. So start with a world, and then put in a second. Roll a d12 and the result is the number of weeks it takes to travel between the two. Yes, weeks! Nice communication delays, arrive before the news of whatever mischief you have got up to does.
Next, there's a lot of detail on designing species. Although again you can design according to an idea you have (or inspiration from fiction), a point-base system is suggested, especially for those who are keen to maintain 'game balance' between the species that may be used as characters. The system of advantages and disadvantages can be used for both intelligent and unintelligent creatures, but the main focus is the classic idea of aliens - whether the intent is to meet them or actually be them.
The discussion then moves on to wider societal issues which the universe-builder needs to consider. Key points include the benefits and disadvantages of a governmental system (of whatever sort) which covers many worlds that it takes weeks to travel between. How well can it hold together? However authoritarian, there has to be some measure of delgation and autonomy as you cannot micromanage a world that you cannot communicate with in less than months! How did it all start? Is there some ancient and now extinct race that had - or at least, appears to have had - the answers to life, the universe and everything? Who, of course, left cryptic clues for the curious to find. The chapter rounds off with a brief note on experience points, how to award them and how to spend them to improve a character. Usually, they are spent to increase abilities or skills, but if you want more action points you need to provide more hooks - which must make sense according to the character's adventures so far.
Finally, Chapter 7 covers the Meta-Setting. Realising that while what you are reading is a toolkit for building your own universe to adventure in not everyone has the time or inclination to create the whole thing from scratch, here is presented the broad outline for a ready-made setting. It's loose enough for you to tweak it to suit your own ideas, comprehensive to use straight out of the box if time is limited and you'd rather spend it writing adventures. The key thing is that it is all intended as a backdrop to the most important people in the universe: the player-characters. Naturally, they probably are not the most important people in known space, but they are as far as your game is concerned! There is a timeline showing how we got to 'now' with various important dates like first contact and the invention of the D-drive, loose enough for you to insert critical moments of your own. The core precepts of the current 'empire' are there, modify as you please, change the style of government as needed - here it is a confederation of member worlds, but an alternate that is a true empire is also there if you prefer. Plenty of scope for politics and intrigue - which may be important to your stories, or something that goes on in the background. Loads of institutions and organisations and ideas to chew on. And then a pre-designed sector to start you off.
The book ends with a reading list, a character sheet and some 'starship cards' which can come in handy especially when engaging in combat.
So there you have it, a toolkit for all those galaxy-spanning adventures you always wanted to have, designed in such a way that you can play it straight off or stamp your own ideas on what makes a truly epic imperial SF setting, or be inspired by something you've read or seen and mix that in. Infinitely customisable, with the spirit of high adventure in interstellar space that the authors set out to achieve.
Return to Thousand Suns Rulebook page.
Reviewed: 29 March 2008