Friday, June 7, 2013

The Vortex System

(not from Rocket Age, just Frazetta Buck Rogers art)
The RPG system that first appeared in Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space and then in Primeval is to be used in the upcoming Rocket Age, which is not new news here. What is new is the system's name.

For a while, when DWAITAS first appeared, the system was fondly called... George. Later it was referred to as the Saturday Afternoon Tea Time Adventure System.

Looks like it is officially now called the Vortex System.

It was first named Vortex here in the history of Rocket Age (found on RPG.net):
What is Rocket Age? It’s the newest RPG from Cubicle 7, written by me, and the start of a new product line, of which I am the line developer. The talented Jon Hodgson is contributing to and directing the art (which is stunning), Paul Borne is looking after layout and graphic design, the mysterious Pookie is providing editing, and of course Cubicle 7's CEO and glorious leader, Dominic McDowall is overseeing the team. In all Rocket Age promises to be another first class rpg, the sort of product one expects from Cubicle 7.

So, what is Rocket Age? It's an alternate history pulpy retro-sci-fi space opera planetary romance. It's throttled up rocket packs burning radium on the long blast to the farthest reaches of the Solar System. It's hunting thunder lizards in the upland jungles of Venus. It's battling Ancient Martian killing machines piloted by the Deutsche Marserkorps across the baking red deserts of Mar. It's exploring the deadly skies of Jupiter under the constant threat of Europan disintegration. It's RAY gun wielding heroes bulls-eyeing mutants in the blasted ruins of Io.
Still not sure what it is? Fine, let's look at the details. Rocket Age is a role-playing game that uses the Vortex System, the same system used by Doctor Who Adventures in Time and Space as well as Primeval. It is fast paced and rules-medium, modified to the setting, and meant to be played at break neck speeds in order to emulate the pulp space operas and serial movies of the 20s to today. Character creation is point based, but occupational packages can be used as templates to guide and speed up character creation. There are thirteen different species available. Starting from the inner most inhabited planets, Venus is the home to the jungle dwelling, argumentative ape-like Venusians. Earthlings are the people of Earth, and their drive and determination has spread them from Mercury to the Jovian moons, and beyond. Mars is home to, oddly enough, the Martians, but their strict caste system has caused the various castes and sub-castes to not just behave differently, but to be physically different. At the top are the royal Silthuri, though they often uneasily share power with the priestly Kastari. Warrior caste Maduri fight battles, guard their masters, and keep the lower castes in check. The Talandri craftsmen make up the most commonly seen Martian caste, whereas the merchant and diplomats of the Pilthuri the least. Then there are the hordes of the Julandri slaves, divided into the strong laborer sub-castes, and the courtesan slaves who tend to the cultural and physical needs of the ruling castes. The nomadic and savage Chanari tribes inhabit the wild deserts of Mars. Leaving Mars we come to the Jovian Moons, inhabited by the savage and degenerate Ionians, the Ganymedian wild treemen, and finally the mysterious Europans.
Wait, those planets can't support life, at least not as we know it. Right you are, except in Rocket Age they do. Just like radium fuel does not accelerate rockets to amazing speeds, and thus enables Earthlings to explore and exploit the Solar System. Instead, we are after the fun, as long as it is internally consistent. That is the design key for Rocket Age, internal consistency and damn the science. The Rule of Cool is in effect, and the setting, not to mention the system, is meant to be as cinematic as possible while maintaining a finger hold on rationality.
Rocket Age began as a vague idea of doing something involving Rocket Rangers, and grew as a setting to put them in. It literally snowballed out of control, leading first to a corebook and then a sequel, and then on to a full product line of at least three books and several electronic supplements and adventures. To say I overshot my word count is an understatement. There were several changes along the way from its initial conception in 2010 until its publication right about now.
But wait, this still doesn't tell you what Rocket Age is, does it? Well, let's look at it chapter by chapter

Recent History

Right off the bat I bring the reader up to date on the alternate history of Rocket Age. It all begins with the first rocket ship, the Eagle lifting off from New York and landing on Mars two hundred days later. From that point history veers off track. Technology and ideas flow back and forth between Earth and Mars. Rocket ship technology (which improves over the course of the decade) allows for travel between Venus, Earth, Mars, and the outer planets. Even little Mercury gets some attention, but is largely ignored due to its extreme heat and lack of atmosphere. The men and women of Earth meet aliens on Mars, Venus, Ganymede, Io, and the Europa. It is the last that darkens the promise of the Rocket Age, for their advanced technology and pugnacious attitude threatens to end Earthling space flight.
As humanity takes to the Solar System, it is not just the natives of the other planets that pose a danger, for as always mankind's greatest threat is itself. The exploration of Mars quickly becomes a scramble for conquest, and the Great Powers vie with each other for the choicest city-states, the best-preserved ruins of the technologically advanced Ancients, and the greatest claim to national prestige. Even as Mars becomes a battlefield and Jupiter promises either fortune or folly, rocket ships press deeper into the Solar System, exploring Saturn and the outer planets.

Heroes of the Rocket Age

Character creation in Rocket Age uses a point based mechanic. Every character must purchase one of fourteen species packages, Venusian, Earthling, Martian (divided into nine castes or sub-castes), Europan, Ganymedian, or Ioite. The balance of Character Points can be spent as the player sees fit on Attributes, Skills, and Traits. As an option to help speed up character creation or simply give a convenient hook for a character, occupational packages may be purchased. For those wanting to just get started, a set of pre-generated characters are provided, each with a short biography.

Equipment

Next we talk about the technology of the Rocket Age. Many of the major advances in Earthling technology have developed from studies conducted on Ancient Martian ruins and the technological wonders that they contain. RAY weapons, war walkers, improved radium drives, rocket packs that can send a man hurtling through the void, as well as improved RADIO and RADAR. Don't ask me how these things work, I'm not one of those bright young people in the clean white coats. Suffice it to say that all your space opera tech is here, or if its not its laying in wait in some moldy Martian ruin.

System Chapters

The next three chapters deal with the mechanics of the Vortex System, the game system that powers Rocket Age. Those of you familiar with Cubicle 7's other sci-fi titles Doctor Who Adventures in Time and Space and Primeval, should also be familiar with the Vortex System. There are some changes, partly in character creation, some in combat, and others in the vehicle rules, but all in all it’s the same basic system. Add 2d6 to an Attribute and a Skill, and try to beat a target number. Traits and situational modifiers might effect this roll, but the resulting number determines if you succeeded or failed, and by how much. The Vortex System uses a result matrix that asks the question did you succeed? The answers run from 'No, and' to 'Yes, and' and cover total failures and successes as well as marginal failures and success.

Alien Sophonts

A person I gamed with years ago told me he always wanted to see a 'creature cantina' in sci-fi games. He was not the only one to express to me that they liked to see a diversity of alien species available as player character options. Well, these people need not be disappointed with Rocket Age, as we have a plethora of options. Earthlings are, of course, the people of Earth, and need little explanation other than to say that due to their mastery of rocket technology they have exploded across the Solar System and become the dominant species. The Venusians are a large and ape-like species native to the jungles of Venus. While their level of technology is just barely out of the Stone Age, they do have a complex  philosophical and mental life. Oddly, they are the only mammalian species on their home planet. The moons of Jupiter are home to at least three intelligent species, though not all of the moons have been thoroughly explored, nor has the vastness of Jupiter's upper atmosphere. The enigmatic Europans possess advanced technology, but have stayed their hands from destruction and are instead sending representatives out to the other intelligent species in order to study them. These emissaries use a participant-observer technique to live with and as one of their target group in order to fully understand why other species behave the way they do. This causes some concern, especially amongst the nations of Earth, for the results of the Europan's displeasure can be seen on the moon Io. This blasted apocalyptic landscape was once home to a bright and shinning species, the Ioites, who somehow ran afoul of the Europans. Generations of life in the ruins of their once great homes have caused the Ioites to evolve into stooped, savage, and bestial creatures that barely hold on to sapience. Finally, the Jovian System is home to the bizarre Ganymedians, the only plant based sophont in the Solar System. Their moon has rich radium and gold deposits, and the Ganymedians are fighting a guerilla war against invading miners intent of tearing up the forest and ripping open the soil.
Then there are the Martians. The peoples of Mars live under a strict caste system, indeed, there are signs that they have either been evolved into this system or were altered in the distant past to fit their castes. For the most part the castes are differ physically, though some, such as the Silthuri, Kastari, Pilthuri, and Talandri, bear similarities in form and appearance. At the top of the caste system are the princes and lesser rulers, the beautiful and graceful Silthuri. They, and the other castes that are physically similar, are very human like in appearance. Sometimes usurping the power of the Silthuri, and in other regions serving as the second rung of the Ladder of Creation, are the priestly Kastari. Defending both of these higher casts are the pugnacious warriors of the Maduri caste, ferocious fighters who are markedly not human, though still humanoid in a brutal and savage way. Below these three Upper Castes are the Lower Castes comprised of the Talandri craftsmen, the Pilthuri merchants and diplomats, and the vast numbers of slaves, the Julandri. The Julandri slave caste is divided into hundreds of sub-castes, the most common of which are the hulking laborers, and the preternaturally attractive courtesans. At the bottom of the castes system, though living outside of mainstream Martian society, are the feral Chanari, the desert raiders whose culture and form harkens back to the earliest days of Martian life.

The Solar System

The meat of the book is a tour of the Solar System, from lonely Mercury out to frozen Pluto. Each section gives not just a description of the planet or moon in question, but provides a non-player character who serves both as an example of the location and a handy friend or foe for the game master to use. In addition, every section has a set of three story hooks that take place in the locale or are associated with it in some way.
Beginning with Mercury, let us journey out through the Solar System. Mercury is uninhabited and abandoned, or is it? You will have to buy the book to find out. Venus is largely unexplored, only a small portion of the jungle covered highlands of the Ishtar Range have seen Earthlings. The rest of the planet and especially the high-pressure depths of the lowlands await the boots of Earthling explorers. A visitor to Venus, and there are many every year, will land at the American rocket port at Roosevelt Station. From there they might explore the jungle, stay at the Livingstone Lodge, or dig for precious minerals, gems, or radium in the Ore Fields (or strike out on their own as wildcatters). Beware the dangers of the jungle, not just angry Venusians upset about incursions into their territory, but dangerous lifeforms such as the thunder lizards and other animals that are reminiscent of earlier epochs of Earth's history.
We will skip Earth on the assumption that most of my readers already know something about it. Mars has long been held in the grip of cultural stagnation, crushed under the weight of tradition and an intractable caste system. Change has come to Mars in the form of Earthlings, but for the large part this is not change for the better. The United States has managed to embroil itself in Martian politics, which has led to the 'accidental' conquest of the Kalond Canal Valley. Allied with the US, Great Britain has also conquered a swath of Martian principalities, but most of its control has been through trade and diplomacy. France does not hold many principalities itself, but its economic and political domination extends far beyond its meager holdings. The two Axis powers, Germany and Italy, have also descended on Mars and their brutal reign extends across a dozen or so city-states formerly held by native Martian princes.
Perhaps the greatest upset to the traditional life of Mars came not with open conquest, but with ideas. The Interplanetary Comintern, along with their Soviet allies, has successfully fomented rebellion against the Upper Castes in several principalities. While not directly under Soviet control, these revolts have had strong Soviet support, as well as Earthling leadership, and threaten to expand the Revolution across the Red Planet. The Lincoln Brigade, a branch of that which fights for freedom in Spain, has freed one Martian city-state, and seeks to expand its democratic views to others. Earthling and other species have formed Freebooter bands, some based on political or religious ideals, others simply groups of explorers or exploiters. These Freebooters wander the face of Mars, pursuing their agendas, offering their services as technical specialist or mercenaries, and even overthrowing weak principalities and setting up their own, often temporally limited, rule.
Why all this interest in Mars? Simply put, money and power. Mars is resource poor, not because there are not many resources left on Mars, but because they have for the most part already been extracted by the Martians, This means that precious minerals, gems, and industrial metals can be readily taken from the Martians, especially as Mars is heavily balkanized into thousands of competing principalities, most no large than a handful of city-states. Adding to this, Martian technology is not up to the standards of Earth, at least its military technology lags far behind. True, the Ancient Martians possessed wondrous levels of technology, but their descendants have fallen far from these lofty heights. It is the ruins of the Ancients that provide the highest profit for Earthling conquerors and Freebooters, for finding working artifacts and reverse engineering them is a risky route to fame and fortune.
Beyond Mars lies the asteroid belt, drawing in insanely daring belt miners and home to its own mysterious sets of ruins, for this great belt of rocky debris was once a planet. Out past the Belt lies the outer planets, the greatest of which is Jupiter. With its horde of satellites, Jupiter forms its own mini model of a solar system, the Jovian System. Jupiter itself presents a grand sky-scape for exploration. Its upper atmosphere, though hot and prone to dangerous storms and methane pockets, hosts clumps of matter known as sky islands. These floating masses of aerial plants and the soil they create are the only solid footing in the swirling clouds, save for the aerial fortresses and rocket ports made by Earthling explorers.
As exciting as the gas clouds of Jupiter are, what draws the attention of Earth towards the Jovian System are the inhabited and inhabitable moons. Europa is home to the Europans, and although the moon itself is off limits (they will disintegrate any ship approaching too closely), an orbital station, Demarcation Point One, exists to allow for diplomatic communication. The Hapsburg-Europan Ultimatum, issued by the Europan's official representative Grand Admiral of Jupiter Sebastian Alexander Leopold von Hapsburg I (the  self-proclaimed heir to the defunct Austrian Empire), announced that the Europans would be watching and judging the activities of Earthlings in the Jovian System. Other inhabited moons include the ice covered moon Callisto (home of the infamous Callisto Yeti), the forest shrouded Ganymede with its rich deposits of gold and radium, blasted Io, volcanic Metis, watery Adrastea, arid Almathea, and red Thebe.
As a design choice there is little information presented about Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. These are left as only sketches, thus allowing for campaigns to be made based on the exploration of the outermost planets. Titan is a sea covered Moon that is inhabited by two possibly intelligent species, though this moon has not yet been explored (and provides fine fodder for a campaign of exploration and adventure). The few ships that have explored Uranus and its satellite have not returned, and Neptune is a great unknown. Pluto, while not technically a planet in our modern age, was still considered a planet in 1938, and  this frozen wasteland appears to have strange snow and ice faces carved on its surface.

Alien Beasts

Its not all Nazi war walkers, Earthling freebooters, and rogue Martians out there, plenty of non-sapient lifeforms are more than willing, in fact quite eager, to gobble up explorers. From Mar's top predator, Arthur's dragon, to the deadly winged devil of Venus, the Solar System is filled with wild animals. Some, like the Martian bahmoot (the most common riding animal on Mars), are useful companions to sophonts. Others, such as the famous thunder lizards of Venus, provide thrilling, if deadly, sport.

GM Section

Rocket Age ends with the obligatory GM section, a chapter of how to, story hooks, and campaign frameworks. Basically, my intent was to make a short 'this is how you play' section and a longer set of episode outlines. In Rocket Age we call adventures episodes and break them down into reels, all this is described in full in the GM chapter. What Rocket Age does not do is tell you what style of campaign to run. The game works just as well for explorers, independent traders, wandering freebooters, natives fighting against Earthling incursions and conquest, members of Earthling militaries bent on conquest, communist agitators in the Ore Fields of Venus, or a host of any idea that you might come up with. My goal with Rocket Age was not to give the customer a single game, but a set of rules and a setting to match that allows them to run rampant across the Solar System. I hope you do, and I hope you enjoy it.
If you want to try out Rocket Age at GenCon, we are running several events. My personal convention team, Con Team Alpha, will be running: Bring 'Em Back Alive, The Lost Cities of the Ancients, Rocket Rangers Away, The Shot Heard 'Round the Moon, Rocket Racers, and Welcome to Yesterday's Space Ago! Check out the GenCon Event catalogs for times and dates, but I must warn you that the events are selling out fast.
Now that this bit of shameless self-promotion is over, next month we will be returning to the Osprey vaults with two new titles of interest to gamers. The War of Horus and Set looks at Ancient Egyptian mythology through one of the core parts of the mythic cycle. For more modern games, we look at Nazi Occult, an alternate history of WWII with, well, Nazis and the occult.

note- this is not from the Rocket Age RPG, this is just cool Frazetta Buck Rogers art