Far too often, genres outside of Dungeons & Dragons style fantasy get pigeonholed into one game. There are hundreds of riffs on swords, sorcerers and elves on shelves at gaming stories around the world, but put out a Weird Western game and there’s always at least one person who thinks all we need is Deadlands. Space horror is breaking that mold thanks to games like Alien and Mothership both games about how space is trying to kill you in hundreds of different, terrifying ways. Now comes Death In Space from designers Christian Plogfors and Carl Niblaeus offering a game set in a universe that’s not dying, it’s already dead and most folks just don’t know it yet. Free League Publishing sent along a review copy of this dark beauty of a book. Does Death In Space nuke the site from orbit? Let’s play to find out.
Death In Space takes place in the Tenebris System, home to a strange type of alien gemstone that’s become central to the expansion of humanity across the galaxy. Players take on the role of the working class grunts that keep the engines of the space empire moving. They are the scavengers that strip down old ships and abandoned colonies for parts and equipment. They haul that scrap to the Iron Ring, the giant space station that encircles the most important planet in the system. There they rub elbows with the miners that find the gems and the cultists that worship the dark between the stars. It’s also where they hear some disturbing rumors. Are the gems drying up? Is the universe collapsing? Is the only thing heard from the powers that fought over the system a strange static that sometimes whispers eerie words and phrases?
The first part of the book covers the rules and character generation. The basic system is a d20 + modifier system with opportunities for advantage or disadvantage based on circumstances. Players are given a roll or choose style setup along with short rules for all the stuff one might expect from a game like this, such as space combat or surviving a vacuum. These rules are very short and to the point with most of the heavier ones filling a page or two. (Combat, for example, takes four.) There’s also a section on building the crew’s space vessel that offers two campaign frames based on the choice. Players choosing the starship will be going on strange exploration adventures per usual while ones who choose the station are in for more of an intrigue laden affair.
The second half of the book included some more setting specific information, a starting adventure and a hearty stack of OSR-style charts and tables meant to inspire stories for the campaign. These range from random encounters in space to ones in the dingy halls of the Iron Ring station. This section also includes modifications to the starting vessel that players can make over time. Given the general vibe of the game and fragility of the characters, I would probably give my players some customization points right off the bat to make their shorter lives a bit more comfortable. While I expected adventures in the Firefly vein to be inspired by this book, the thought of running some kind of Deep Space Nine meets Alien story sets Death In Space apart from its fellow space horror games.
Another big inspiration for the game comes from MORK BORG. The game was laid out by Stockholm Kartell with a slick, dark look that feels similar to the yellow blasts of doom from their earlier work While other dark universes are still in the process of falling apart, Death In Space pushes forward into post-apocalypse in space. The book encourages a weird beauty and surreality driven by the end. If time and space is collapsing why should the laws of physics remain unbroken? This gives players a chance to mess with cosmic mutations given to them by the void and opens up possibilities for the GM beyond nasty aliens.
Death In Space is a dark game that stands out from contemporaries by embracing a rules-lite system and injecting weirdness into its setting. It works as a game for fans of Mork Borg who want to take it to the stars or for other space horror games that want to take things in more of a Event Horizon direction.