Friday, December 11, 2009

REVIEW: X-plorers

I've seen some grousing in various quarters that the old school movement hasn't yet produced an original game, preferring instead to rehash Dungeons & Dragons over and over again. While I think there's some basis for this complaint, I nevertheless think it's largely founded in ignorance both of what the old school movement is actually about and what it's actually produced. The reality is that old schoolers have produced a number of original games, unless one's definition of "original" means "having nothing whatsoever to do with D&D mechanically," in which case you're claiming that a significant portion of all RPGs, not just old school ones, aren't in fact original. Moreover, it overlooks games, such as David Bezio's X-plorers.

X-plorers is a RPG focusing on the "adventures of Galactic Troubleshooters," according to its cover. Like many modern old school games, it's also an attempt at an alternate history: "What if the first roleplaying game was based on science fiction rather than fantasy?" Consequently, X-plorers uses not only old school mechanics but also "outdated" notions of science and technology. The game is intended by its author to be an evocation not just of the early days of the hobby but also earlier notions of science fiction, before Star Wars and its imitators forever changed the complexion of the genre.

As someone who wrote his own SF RPG with similar intentions, I was naturally predisposed to like X-plorers, but it's Bezio's excellent -- and brief -- rules that really won me over. At 60 pages in its retail form, the game is shorter even than Swords & Wizardry: White Box and that's a wondrous thing to see. Even more wondrous is that the game feels complete, covering everything from character generation to starships to alien creature creation and more. It's a testament to just how little rules are actually needed for a RPG, provided one is willing to leave many things to the imagination of the players and the judgment of the referee. Perhaps because it's a sci-fi game, X-plorers really hit home to me how much space in modern RPGs are wasted on esoteric details and rules for marginal cases, the kind of stuff that many gamers, when pressed, will sheepishly admit they never use in their own games anyway.

X-plorers
characters possess four attributes: Agility, Intelligence, Physique, and Presence, generated by rolling 3D6 in order. Each attribute has a modifier associated with it, ranging from -2 to +2, with those at each end being rather rare. Each attribute modifier affects certain game statistics -- Agility governs ranged combat, for example -- including saving throws. There are thus no "dump stats," although Presence comes closest, since there are minimal social interaction rules. Neither are morale or employing hirelings covered, both of which might have helped to make Presence more generally useful.

X-plorers is a class-based game, with four classes available: scientist, soldier, scout, and technician. The classes are interesting, in that, with the exception of the soldier, which grants slightly better combat bonuses, all grant exactly the same hit dice, combat bonuses, and saving throws. Consequently, there's a unified experience point table, which disappointed me, mostly because the presence of such a thing generally implies that "balance" was considered in designing classes, a notion I find flawed in conception and execution most of the time, although it didn't seem to rear its head in this case. I had expected that, given that there are four attributes and four classes, that there might have been some correlation between them, with the soldier, for example, being the "Physique class," but that doesn't appear to be the case. Too rigorous a connection between them would likely have been a bad idea anyway. Still, the lack of a class with even a small connection to Presence might have helped me overcome my sense that it's a pointless attribute.

Each class (again, with the soldier being a slight exception) grants a character a number of skills. Scientists, for example, are skilled in Computers, Medicine, Science, and Sociology, while Scouts are skilled in Pilot, Security, Sleight of Hand, and Stealth. At each level -- yes, X-plorers is a level-based game -- a character has a skill throw score, which is a number equal or above which a player must roll on 1D20. Each skill has an associated attributed (almost always Agility or Intelligence) and its modifier may be added to the skill throw. The score decreases as a character gains levels, representing an increasing level of proficiency. It's a pretty elegant system overall, although it will ensure that characters are very archetypal. However, a "multi-class" option enables characters to learn the skills of other classes at an XP cost to their original class, so there is some scope for variation within the rules.

Equipment covers the most obvious bases, particularly weaponry and defenses. Because characters only gain 1D6 hit points (plus Physique modifiers) per level, combat will likely prove deadly at low-levels (and perhaps even at high ones, if laser weapons are involved). Mechanically, combat should be familiar to players of D&D: roll high against an Armor Class to hit and then roll for damage. A clever wrinkle is that, whenever a character loses all his hit points, he suffers a critical hit, resulting in a 1D6 roll on a table. Results range from immediate death to unconsciousness to an adrenaline surge that restores 1D6 temporary hit points. All subsequent hits against a 0 hp character cause a further roll on the critical hit table at a cumulative -1. Consequently, it's theoretically possible for such a character to remain alive and active for a couple of rounds even after depleting all his hit points.

Saving throws cover almost any kind of action the rules don't explicitly cover. They're intended to be a catch-all the referee can employ whenever he's unsure of a character's success. I was reminded of the saving rolls from Tunnels & Trolls, a mechanic whose virtues are slowly starting to warm my cold heart. Experience gain is similarly free-form, with a few specific awards for certain actions (defeating opponents, for example), but the bulk of XP coming from successfully completing a mission, with the amount determined by the referee. I have to admit I find free-form XP to something of a cop-out, but I also understand the difficulty in establishing precisely what should and should not grant XP, so I'm willing to give X-plorers a pass here.

Starship combat is simple but cleverly designed. Characters or NPCs must assume the roles of navigator, pilot, engineer, and gunner, with each having several choices that determine the success or failure of combat. Otherwise, starship combat is very similar to personal combat, right down to the critical hit table. I genuinely believe that this table is one of the most intriguing ideas in a game full of intriguing ideas. It gives even the defeated a chance to make a difference and adds tension, as players hope their character or starship either is not hit again or that they roll well enough to last just one more round.

X-plorers concludes with a referee's guide that includes advice and details on creating adventures, planets, NPCs, and alien creatures. Also included is a short adventure, called "Cleopatra Station," about which I cannot comment, as it was not included in the free version of the game I downloaded from the Gray Area Games website. The free version is also lacking in art and its layout is thus slightly different than the retail version, which can be purchased for $12.00 in print or $6.00 in PDF. There's also a single supplement, the first in a series of quarterly releases for the game.

There's much to admire in X-plorers and chief among them is the way it cuts to the heart of what's needed to play even a science fiction RPG. The game wastes no space on unnecessary details or chrome, focusing instead on the basic mechanics needed to govern an enjoyable SF adventure. Even if one feels that something is "missing," it's a solid foundation on which to build a science fiction RPG of one's own, something that's explicitly encouraged by its author. In that respect, it's very much like OD&D -- a toolkit for constructing one's own game. Unsurprisingly, I like this approach a great deal and am glad to see it catching on outside of the confines of fantasy gaming. Here's hoping X-plorers encourages many others to follow its lead.

Presentation: 7 out of 10
Creativity: 8 out of 10
Utility: 7 out of 10

Buy This If: You're looking for a SF RPG similar in complexity and approach to OD&D.
Don't Buy This If: You think SF RPGs need to be hyper-detailed and mechanically exhaustive.

16 comments:

  1. Nice writeup. I also like the concept of that critical table when 0 hit points is reached.

    "I had expected that, given that there are four attributes and four classes, that there might have been some correlation between them... Too rigorous a connection between them would likely have been a bad idea anyway."

    Hello, d20 Future, hadn't thought about you lately with your lame-o classes of "Strong Hero", "Smart Hero", "Wise Hero", etc.

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  2. Sounds good, and I should probably check it out...

    Other new "non-D&D" games that have emerged in the same vein..

    Mazes & Minotaurs
    Mutant Future
    Encounter Critical

    People should really look into them.

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  3. Hmm... This looks like my perfect sf game. I've downloaded a copy for perusal. Next step: Create a decent sandbox for campaigning in... Probably I'll use the Traveller tables and throw in every sf adventure I own...

    "Hello, d20 Future, hadn't thought about you lately with your lame-o classes of "Strong Hero", "Smart Hero", "Wise Hero", etc."

    Ugh, I hated that *so much* - but maybe there's something in d20 Future I can use to supplement this.

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  4. Great to see X-plorers get some well-deserved love. Coming as it did around GenCon, I think it got overlooked by many. It's a great work of love that also happens to be a great game. There's a group of kids I know back in Ohio who jumped into the hobby with Swords & Wizardry this year, and if they want to move onto SF, I'll be pointing them to X-plorers.

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  5. Oooh, color me intrigued! I will definitely check this out.

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  6. I totally hate the alternate history conceit of some of the games mentioned by Chris. It adds nothing and can get in the way. Why two versions of Mazes & Minotaurs?

    Does the levels method add anything to X-plorers add to the game? Or is it just there to add to the alterna-history style? If it's just for style, isn't it a poorer game for it? Why not just design the best game you can, and make note of what inspired you in an introduction or designer's notes?

    I guess I just miss the point of this sort of thing.

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  7. Why two versions of Mazes & Minotaurs?

    That's something I'll talk about in my own upcoming reviews of both versions of the game, but I think there's justification for both. The "original" M&M stands in for the Golden Age of gaming, whereas the "second edition" stands in for the Silver Age. Together, this covers the two styles of games we saw in the first 15 years of the hobby's existence and M&M does this brilliantly.

    Does the levels method add anything to X-plorers add to the game? Or is it just there to add to the alterna-history style?

    Firstly, X-plorers doesn't take the alternate history conceit very far at all. It's mentioned only in the introduction as the germ of the idea that inspired the author. He doesn't present the game as if it were a product of the 1970s at all.

    As for levels, yes, they matter, because characters gain more hit dice, better saving/skill throws, attack bonuses, etc. as they level.

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  8. I'm very glad to see such a positive review of this game, because I just ordered a copy yesterday. I was ordering the new Fight On! and had heard of this one and decided to get it as a Christmas present for myself.

    Hadn't known about the free version, though.

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  9. The game is intended by its author to be an evocation not just of the early days of the hobby but also earlier notions of science fiction, before Star Wars and its imitators forever changed the complexion of the genre.

    Funny you should say that: I actually think X-plorers handles original-trilogy, non-Jedi-infested Star Wars just fine!

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  10. Pretty interesting and I've picked up the free version of the game to have a look at.

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  11. Interesting. The critical hit and starship combat subsystems sound very similar (particularly the former) in concept to those of the new Rogue Trader, although RT is a good five times thicker, so it contains quite a bit more of the esoterica you mention in the review!

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  12. If Presence is under-used, as well as morale and hirelings maybe it could be used for resisting mind control/hypnosis/psychic powers.

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  13. Funny you should say that: I actually think X-plorers handles original-trilogy, non-Jedi-infested Star Wars just fine!

    I'm sure it could -- it's a very flexible game -- but, reading through it, X-plorers struck me as very much a pre-Star Wars-style SF RPG. The style of the game reminded me of the kind of stuff you'd read in SF mags from the 40s, 50s, and 60s.

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  14. If Presence is under-used, as well as morale and hirelings maybe it could be used for resisting mind control/hypnosis/psychic powers.

    That's my thought as well. It's exactly what I'd do if I were going to play the game and introduce psionics or whatever into it. Otherwise, Presence really does feel kind of pointless.

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  15. Some of the art from the final version is viewable online, if anyone's curious.

    -Huth

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  16. Nice review. Confirms my view that the best old skool SF game is Traveller, and that in fact this game is D&D as Traveller. But hey, have fun!

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