• The VOIDRUNNER'S CODEX is LIVE! Explore new worlds, fight oppressive empires, fend off fearsome aliens, and wield deadly psionics with this comprehensive boxed set expansion for 5E and A5E!

Mosey Through The Galaxy As Sad Space Cowboys

Tell stylish stories of space outlaws scraping by to survive.

1716414480246.png

The dysfunctional family of a spacefaring crew is an archetype that’s proven to be fertile ground for science fiction and role playing games. Star Wars, Guardians Of The Galaxy, Firefly and Traveller have all taken advantage of stories of hard-luck crews doing dangerous work to keep flying for just a little while longer. Cowboy Bebop sits comfortably in this pantheon as well, and it’s where Orbital Blues by Soul Muppet Publishing takes its most direct influence. Designers Sam Sleney & Zachary Cox call their game lo-fi space role playing but if you don’t hear at least one of the iconic music tracks from the anime classic as you flip through the book it’s clearly time to watch it again (or for the first time). Soul Muppet sent along a copy for me to review. Does the game jam or let its bounty slip away? Let’s play to find out.

The art design by Josh Clark and Love Archivist give the game a distinctive look that hit me in a way I haven’t felt since the first time I laid eyes on Mork Borg’s distinct yellow and black graphic design attack. The book isn’t exactly an in-game artifact but it feels like the designers went through a stack of magazines from the retro futuristic setting, cut them apart and then put together a collage of fonts, illustrations and advertisements that illustrate how this world works while also points to the way in which it failed its inhabitants.

The mechanics of the game stay very simple. To succeed at an action, roll 2d6 plus a stat against a target number of 8. Difficulty is applied through an extra advantage/disadvantage style extra die. Gambits are specific feats a player can choose that gives the extra dice in specific circumstances rather than waiting for situational judgment. Troubles reflect background elements that will come back to haunt them.

Combat adds a d6 to the mix that players use for damage. That d6 reflects fists, pistols and grenades, though weapons have collections of tags that adjust their lethality and effectiveness based on how they are used. A shotgun, for example, rolls with advantage at short ranges while it has disadvantage at long ranges.

The players are on the fringes of this galaxy eking out an existence by smuggling, bounty hunting and generally doing what needs to be done by people who are desperate to keep moving. Everyone out here is on the run from something in their past; an old lover, a debt, a regretful action, and so on. Being confronted by reminders of their painful past gives the character a chance at a point of Blues and a chance to brood over it in a flashback scene, a slow motion memory or maybe staring at a bottle of whiskey floating in zero gravity.

These Blues points double as experience points. Once a player collects enough, they can choose one of their Troubles becomes a problem in the present. That old lover shows up desperate for help or someone tries to cryogenically freeze them to bring them back to the person they owe. Assuming the player resolves the storyline, they get access to advancements and erase their blues until the next time trouble comes calling. I like that Troubles are only partially defined before play. Each one comes with a handful of questions to answer that are meant to be answered as the stories get told. Answering these questions gives the players Blues as they mold the story to fit their character. The one area that I’m unsure of is rolling for a Blues check. I would have liked more guidance on when to roll one as it seems arbitrary at the moment. Players have a chance to rack up Blues by playing to their Troubles but I wonder if something like choosing to fail a role and then tying it back to the character might have been a better option.

A similar narrative process drives the debts required to run a ship. Rather than worrying about space mortgages or pretend dollar amounts players total up points of Credits and Debts at the end of each session. If credits come out on top, the players get something useful like a new contact or advancement on a long term project. If they have more Debts, they get something undesirable like a loan they have to pay back or a favorable contact ghosting them. These simple systems capture the essence of these kinds of stories without going into fantasy bookkeeping that can sometimes bog down this style of play.

The rest of the book contains a setting sector, job hooks, factions and characters to get players and GMs in motion quickly. The write ups are sparse but flavorful and with a little adaptation could easily be used for any game of a similar nature. I wish there would have been more ship and character art. The rest of the book is so evocative but nothing quite sells a setting like a picture of an inhabitant and their cool retro inspired spaceship.

Orbital Blues offers a great framework to tell stylish stories of space outlaws scraping by to survive. Even if you already have a favorite game of this style, it’s worth checking out as a resource of new story ideas and mechanical inspiration.

If you found this review useful, please consider purchasing it through the embedded links within. Thank you for reading and supporting your friendly local game reviewer.
 

log in or register to remove this ad

Rob Wieland

Rob Wieland

Ramaster

Adventurer
Did the reviewer play the game or did they just read the book? It seems like the second option, from what I'm reading, since there's no mention how many hours did they play it and how many people where there at the game ("Let’s play to find out").

I think it's very annoying to read reviews from people who didn't play the game. Especially with RPGs, since some things might sound nice and evocative when you are reading the "narration" of the rulebook but may play atrociously at the table.

Other than that, the article could definitely use another editing pass. There's typos/semantic errors galore.

I love the Space Western genre, but I'm not sure if these kinds of RPGs are up my alley. This review didn't really do anything to answer that question.
 

Did the reviewer play the game or did they just read the book? It seems like the second option, from what I'm reading, since there's no mention how many hours did they play it and how many people where there at the game ("Let’s play to find out").

I think it's very annoying to read reviews from people who didn't play the game. Especially with RPGs, since some things might sound nice and evocative when you are reading the "narration" of the rulebook but may play atrociously at the table.

Other than that, the article could definitely use another editing pass. There's typos/semantic errors galore.

I love the Space Western genre, but I'm not sure if these kinds of RPGs are up my alley. This review didn't really do anything to answer that question.

We ended up playing three games which was just long enough for one player to trigger their Trouble. Were I booking this for a campaign, I'd probably play until everyone has popped their initial trouble and then close out the season.
 


NerdyBird

Explorer
Thanks for this! And great timing too. I was looking through my vast collection of RPG PDFs last night and spent some time looking through Orbital Blues, wondering how it played and if I should add it to the rotation for my group. I think I will.
 

Vincent55

Adventurer
To be honest this can be done in any sci-fi game, it is just a matter of the game master being creative enough to pull it off, maybe a mechanic would be ok here but don't see a point of an entire game built around this. I have run sci-fi misfit games like this many times and it only works if the players want it too, and the GM does his magic.
 

ruemere

Adventurer
I have considered to (and then decided not to) run a campaign.

The thing that made decide against had to do with the feel of the game - it's depressing.

We're I to run a space faring story, I would pick Coriolis (with some changes) because it keeps the sense of exotic wonder, and has sufficient array of tools (aside from ship rules and somewhat intolerable class system) to provide a similar experience.
 

Voidrunner's Codex

Related Articles

Remove ads

Voidrunner's Codex

Remove ads

Top