I have been trying to write this review for a while now and there are a few reasons it has taken me far longer than it normally would. Normally when a new RPG drops into my lap, especially one based on game mechanics that I am familiar with, that first read through is usually enough to get a feel for the game/setting, but with Mindjammer there was so much more to get to grips with. To start with its huge – the book runs to almost 500 pages and its not just packed with fluff and FATE Core rules reworkings. No, indeed this is something different.
Lets start with where it comes from, because this isn’t the first time I’ve seen Mindjammer. Its origins lie in another game that I was very fond of “Starblazer Adventures” and Mindjammer was a supplement for that game, in fact it won a Judges spotlight award at the ENnies in 2010. However, it has evolved enormously since then, the Mindjammer universe has been developed into a much more complete setting and adapted for the FATE Core ruleset – and it is certainly the best FATE Core implementation I have read to date, but more of that later.
The creative energy behind Mindjammer comes from the magical mind of Sarah Newton. With a stream of successful titles to her credit including the ENnie Award-winning “Zero Point” campaign for Achtung! Cthulhu, and the ENnie-nominated Legends of Anglerre, Sarah is undoubtedly one of the most creative and exciting RPG authors working at present. It’s not just her writing that is exciting; it is the breadth of her work and her understanding of what makes for good, playable game mechanics. This is especially true with Mindjammer where making the right choices around game mechanics was so incredibly important given the nature of the setting.
The book itself is really nicely organized; you don’t need to go jumping around all over the place. All of the main character creation rules can be found in the third chapter of the book, (chapters one and two being a general “welcome to roleplay games and a basic game overview). The next hundred pages or so, (chapters four through eight), cover all the goodies of character creation in detail – its like the reference pages of a players book; Cultures, Genotypes & Occupations, Aspects & Fate points, Skills & Stunts, Extras, Technology.
Chapter nine is the detail of how to play the game, how the rules really work– including how to read FATE dice. Everything from combat and conflict resolution, recovery, movement through to character advancement is covered nicely. This chapter is among the best in the book – its just twenty pages, but really does cover “how to play”, the pitch of it is just right, its not written for the slowest kid in class but it doesn’t assume too much. You need to pay attention, but it’s worth it.
Chapter ten is all about games mastering for Mindjammer and its full of excellent and sage advice for newbies as well as for old timers like me, it advises that as GM “You’re the Chairman, not God”, interpreting and adjudicating the rules, working with your players and so on. It goes on to give good guidance on preparing for your game, how to run it (including the nuances of FATE such as Skills, Stunts, Aspects and dealing with Compels), how to create and run Non Player Characters, dealing with the passage of time and so on.
The remainder of this weighty tome, from page 186 onwards (more than half of the book), is the incredible detail of the setting itself. The setting is certainly complex and wide reaching; this isn’t your average space opera. This is “Transhuman Adventure in the Second Age of Space”.
“In the seventeenth millennium, the New Commonality of Humankind is expanding, using newly-discovered faster-than-light travel to rediscover lost worlds colonised in the distant past. It’s a time of turmoil, of clashing cultures, as civilisations shudder and collapse before the might of a benevolent empire ten millennia old”.
The Mindscape, a core concept, gets a chapter to itself. A vast communication network, data store and collection of virtual spaces, connecting everyone in the commonality, the Mindscape allows users to “Thoughtcast”, a sort of instant techno-telepathy. Indeed the Mindscape facilitates the use of techno-psi, a neat way of managing a sort of psionic power system within the setting. Its possible to have whole adventures within the virtual spaces of the Mindscape, but yet it is much more than the traditional Cyberspace of other sci-fi games. This and the remaining chapters give you all the setting detail you could want covering the New Commonality, history, culture, starships, vehicles, space travel, alien life forms, worlds and civilisations, even a fully fleshed sector of Commonality space is provided (The Darradine Rim).
It is worth taking a couple of seconds to discuss the “Transhuman” element of the game, basically the use of technology to allow mankind to progress beyond the physical limitations of the species. As noted previously, the Mindscape provides the mechanism for psionic like abilities, but it also allows a persons knowledge and memories to be recorded at the point of death, these “Thanograms” can then be loaded into sentient machines, personal equipment, or synthetic beings known as “Eidolons”. This potential immortality is carefully managed in the game (and described wonderfully in Sarah Newton’s novel “Mindjammer”), by recognizing that people are more than just their knowledge and memories, and by uploading these into another construct you are not preserving the person. In short the game setting doesn’t dodge the ethical issues.
I’ll concede now that you could, should you wish, ignore the setting and use the bare bones of Mindjammer to play your Space Opera your way – it certainly has all the tools that you need in your box to do so. But its not the rules that make this a very special game, it’s the setting itself. If I’m honest it puts me in mind of a game most of my friends and I loved playing back in college – Skyrealms Of Jorune – its not that it shares any particular plot elements and certainly it has no similarities in terms of game mechanics. But what it does have is an incredibly rich and complex setting with historic and cultural elements that are crucial to the success of the storyline. As with Jorune I can imagine that this will put some people off. Certainly I always loved playing Jorune but could never get around to investing the time needed to get to grips with the setting well enough to run it. But now I’m older, wider and a little less interested in beating up Snotlings and frankly Mindjammer is a fantastic read, even if I never run the game I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.
I said earlier in the post that I’d come back to FATE Core and its importance to Mindjammer. Without FATE Core I’m not sure the game could work. Almost any other games system would end up with you requiring a plethora of “special” rules to cope with the scale of the setting, the sentient technology, armies, fleets, spaceships, weapons, organisations. Yet, by using the FATE fractal ruling it basically means that anything in the game – and I mean anything – can be constructed like a character, with aspects, skills, and stunts and so on. It’s a simple and elegant way to attach mechanics to the more difficult elements, key to FATE and in my opinion crucial in making Mindjammer a successful game without overburdening the players with different rules.
Lastly, the production quality. The book is beautiful, it has some really nice artwork throughout. The paper used is good quality, the watermarked pages add to the look and feel and do not obscure the text. There is liberal and sensible use of tables, sidebars and callouts to enphasise and clarify. Most important of all the text is clear, concise and extremely readable both in terms of its presentation and its content. The hardback binding is solid and the inclusion of a bookmark ribbon is a nice considerate touch. Priced at $54.99 this is not a cheap RPG, but then this is a quality product that represents a considerable body of work by the author.
The Mindjammer Press website (www.mindjammerpress.com) has a wealth of information to help you get into the game. If your appetite has been whetted then you might want to check out a number of previews available here, they are pre-release versions, before proofing and final page references, but otherwise are substantially the same as their final appearance in the book, and will give you a chance to grasp the look, feel and content quality for yourself. If you are ready to jump in and get playing you can also find character sheets and character creation, reference sheets and other templates here – along with pregens for some of the main characters to be found in the Mindjammer novel. I’ve mentioned the novel a couple of times now, its material enough for a whole separate review and like the RPG it is a cracking read.
When I first heard about Mindjammer my instinct was that another science fiction RPG was likely to struggle in a quite crowded niche of the industry – especially alongside some very well established games. But frankly, I think time will prove my first instincts very, very wrong. In fact I would probably go out on a limb and say that Mindjammer is going to raise the bar and set a new standard for the genre.
If you found yourself shipwrecked on a desert island with five friends, a lifetime’s supply of Haribo, Doritos, Jaffa Cakes and Mountain Dew, a set of Polyhedral dice and you could only have one RPG what would it be? Well I think Mindjammer may just have become my personal Desert Island RPG.