Welcome back to Roll Perception Plus Awareness, a column about roleplaying games and their place in a genre reader’s and writer’s world.
It’s the Second Age of Space, 200 years after the invention of a faster-than-light drive has arrested the seemingly inevitable senescence of humanity and brought about the possibilities of a true galactic culture. In the 10,000 years since the first Age of Space and that slow decline, humanity spread to the stars in vast waves of sublight colonization. Now, with planing, a faster than light travel drive, the Commonality has spread out from Old Earth, with a new strength, a new drive and new purpose.
Rapid advances in society brought by contact with the old colonies and civilizations rediscovered by means of the planing engine have brought about great changes and technological leaps in humanity. Even the vast, growing Commonality is a small fraction of human settled space. Other civilizations, great and small await rediscovery and contact, or fear it. One human civilization, the Venu, provides a challenge and antagonist to the Commonality. Alien civilizations and races, not as numerous as Man, are to be found as well. Even with all of these challenges, for the first time in millennia, humanity has a future…but a future that is far from known. A future that the players can help shape.
Mindjammer is a roleplaying game from the mind of Sarah Newton, a rebooted FATE version of a previous roleplaying system set in a universe Newton has been building and working in for years. (She also has a self published novel set in the same universe, following the adventures of a special ops team investigating a potentially dangerous hyper technology on a fringe world.) Set approximately in 17,000 AD by our calendar, the game focuses firmly on the question “What is to become of Man?” With decline and extinction arrested for the moment, the fate of humanity and trans-humanity lie in the balance as the Commonality reunites, or tries to, the myriad civilizations and peoples that have sprung up.
The version of FATE that Newton uses in Mindjammer is very much in line with FATE Core, The Dresden Files and the other major FATE powered games that have come out recently. The FATE method of giving everything Aspects and using those mechanics across the board for every object and character works rather well in the Mindjammer universe, for characters can be far more than humans, or even would be transhumans. Want to play a sentient starship that your fellow players travel the sector in? Yes, Mindjammer lets you do that, and the FATE system makes a sentient starship character use the same sorts of mechanics as its passengers do. The high technology setting allows for these sentient starships to download their consciousness into constructed bodies so that such a player character is not stuck in orbit twiddling their sensors while the real action is down on the surface. (The aforementioned novel features such a character as one of the protagonists). The rulebook does not presuppose knowledge of the FATE system and contains complete rules for understanding and using the system in play.
A major focus of the setting, and thus the game itself, is Mindscape. Mindscape is the interstellar ‘internet’ of the setting, a fully immersive virtual reality that characters extensively use (and in character creation, can create aspects of themselves that only apply to it). There are no ansibles, no direct faster than light communications by means other than hand carrying it in a starship. So Mindscape is updated and kept in sync in system after system by means of starships which transfer updates in information from system and system. These important ships that perform this important task are the titular Mindjammers of the setting. Even so, the asynchronous nature of Mindscape across star systems provides a wealth of story potential for games–and of course, the hazards of such a virtual reality when the characters find themselves cut off from it. Given that nearly every character will have access to Mindscape, this does help avoid the problem of some SF roleplaying games where cyberspace winds up being a subsystem of the game that one hacker character uses.
How does Mindjammer stack up against other SF Space based roleplaying games? In many ways, although it shares the FATE engine with Diaspora, this is at the far end of the spectrum from that game in terms of physical scope. In Diaspora, as you will recall, the setting is constructed in character play, and is a most handful of systems. While a wise GM will put constraints and signposts for characters so that they aren’t lost in the wide universe of Mindjammer, the potential scale of the world is much, much larger than in Diaspora. And provides setting material in spades. (It also occurs me that you could have a Diaspora game set in the Mindjammer verse in a set of star systems not yet contacted by the Commonality–or on the verge of being so).
Robin Laws’ Ashen Stars is somewhat lighter on the setting material than Mindjammer is, and Laws’ Drama system provides a distinctly different focus. There are definite parallels, in the overarching kinds of stories one might tell, given Ashen Stars’ focus on a frontier where the player characters play lawmen for hire. Visiting strange planets and civilizations, dealing with alien threats, and helping to forge the future are definitely things possible in both games.
Traveller, though is the real basis of comparison to Mindjammer. Mindjammer and Traveller both span vast spaces of time. Both have a deep time and history, although Traveller has progenitor aliens as a major mechanism to seed humanity to the stars, rather than Man’s own efforts. Both have a wide range of potential character types, campaign types, and types of stories that one might run within the universe. Black Ops specialists, mercenaries for hire, traders, explorers looking for first contact…all these and much more are possible on the canvases the games provide.
Traveller, in its classic form, is about an Imperium ready to collapse, fall or undergo major troubles; by comparison the Commonality is a much younger entity, burgeoning, growing and expanding. The tech level of the Traveller verse, mainly as a consequence of when its written, is also significantly lower than the Commonality in terms of FTL technology and transhumanism. The big picture themes of the two games are extremely different. I think I’d rather live in the Mindjammer universe, but both universes are not short of interesting places to go and things to do.
The Mindjammer book, like some Traveller material features an extensive planetary generation tables and rules for when a GM needs a world for the characters to visit. However, it occurs to me that given Traveller’s lower tech level, you could easily import Traveller worlds as models for pre and early contact Commonality worlds for the players to discover and interact with.
Mindjammer, ultimately, is for roleplayers who want a large, already detailed setting for their space science fiction adventures featuring high technology. While the game can do many of the things other SF Space games can, it is when Mindjammer plays to its strengths that it shines as one of the most interesting FATE games today.