Monday, August 8, 2011

REVIEW: Polychrome

Speaking as someone who's written his own science fiction RPG (and is in the midst of revising its rulebook), Stars Without Number fills me with a certain degree of envy. Not only is it an excellent example of old school design principles applied to a contemporary game, it's one that consistently makes me sit up and say, "I wish I'd thought of that." A good example of what I mean is the expansiveness of its skeletal default setting, which enables the referee to create whatever worlds, organizations, interstellar governments, and alien races he wishes and nevertheless tie them easily into the background presented in the rulebook. The 40-page supplement Polychrome takes this to another level by demonstrating the ability of Stars Without Number (hereafter SWN) to function as a multi-genre science fiction RPG with similar ease.

Polychrome takes its name from "a world of steel and stain" whose atmosphere is corrupted by an alien biotoxin ruled by "cold-blooded corporate officials [who] control access to vital cybernetic medical tech." In this way, Polychrome pulls double duty, serving as both a gazetteer of a single planet to insert into an ongoing SWN campaign and as a cyberpunk sourcebook for the game. Once again, I found myself wishing I'd thought of this. What author Kevin Crawford has done here may not be revolutionary, but it's amazingly economical, enabling him to provide a surprising amount of both rules and setting material in a short span of pages. In doing so, he's expanded the utility of SWN, showing that the game need not be limited to exploration in an interstellar sandbox but can handle classic chrome-and-mirrorshades cyberpunk adventures, too.

Polychrome begins with an overview of the eponymous planet, including its history and society. There are also overviews of important NPCs, locations, and megacorporations. All of these overviews are succinct and heavily focused on providing information useful for creating and running adventures. That's not to say all the information is immediately, let alone solely, practical, but very little of it is presented for its own sake. As if to emphasize this point, the supplement also includes straightforward and practical advice on how to create adventures on Polychrome, using a combination of seeds and random complications to illustrate the process. Complementing this section are additional sections presenting simple rules for investigations and hacking -- two central elements of cyberpunk adventures. Also present are rules handling psionics on Polychrome and cybernetic devices not found in the SWN rulebook.

Polychrome includes an adventure as well. Entitled "Bad Blood," it's intended to introduce offworld characters to the world of Polychrome and its unusual society and culture by involving them in a revenge plot by a young woman whose brother has run afoul of internecine battles between planetary factions. "Bad Blood" takes up 8 pages of the supplement and, while I am always glad to see adventures included in gaming supplements, I must confess that these 8 pages were by far the weakest in Polychrome. That's admittedly not saying a great deal, given how much I liked the rest of the book, but I couldn't help but feel that the supplement would have been better served by additional random tables for creating one's own adventures and NPCs. On the other hand, "Bad Blood" does provide plenty of concepts, situations, and statted out allies and antagonists that, even if a referee has no use for it as presented, it can still be used as an idea mine.

Polychrome is available either as PDF for $4.99 or a printed book + PDF for $9.99. Like previous supplements for SWN, its layout is unadorned and easy to read, broken up by occasional bits of what appears to be science fiction clip art. Polychrome isn't going to win any awards for its appearance, but it's its content that is the real draw here anyway. On that front, I have no significant complaints. Polychrome fills in some important gaps in the rules of Stars Without Number, like hacking, that are essential if you want to run classic cyberpunk adventures. Like all of SWN's rules, they're simple and easy to understand, emphasizing once again how few rules really are needed for any kind of RPG to be playable, provided the referee and players are imaginative and trusting.

Polychrome isn't going to set the hobby on fire, but I can't help but think it'd be great if more roleplaying games adopted its approach to both rules expansion and setting design. Like its predecessor, Skyward Steel, hits that sweet spot for me between too much and too little detail, inspiring without doing all the work for me. Polychrome definitely shows off the best of what old school design has to offer and I'd be very happy to see other designers follow in its footsteps.

Presentation: 6 out of 10
Creativity: 8 out of 10
Utility: 7 out of 10

Buy This If: You're playing Stars Without Number or another old school SF RPG and want to add some cyberpunk elements to your campaign.
Don't Buy This If: You have no interest in cyberpunk.


  1. "... classic chrome-and-mirrorshades cyberpunk adventures..."

    This may be the single biggest makes-me-feel-old phrase that I've ever encountered. *ouch*

  2. SWN is possibly the best game I've ever purchased and the only Sci Fi game I play. Pure class...