orginally published at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2011/09/08/tabletop-review-mindjammer/
When I wrote my review of Starblazer Adventures, the classic 80’s science fiction opus The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension was playing in the background. Coming from the same time period as Starblazer Adventures, Buckaroo Banzai has a similar ethic, one rooted in the pulp sci-fi of the 30’s and 40’s, as well as radio serials and even Rock and Roll itself. For me, as both a child of the 80’s and a huge fan of classic SF, this setting is easy to grasp and the aesthetic makes perfect sense to me. That said, I can easily imagine someone not steeped in this genre being at a loss for how to handle the setting.
Mindjammer does not come from the Starblazer comic book and is a wholly new and original setting. The year is somewhere around 17,000 AD. Slower than light space travel has been chugging along for millennia and Old Earth has been fruitful. Colonies have sprung up throughout the cosmos, but the lack of faster than light communications means that colonies were on their own, standing and falling on their own. Very recently, within 200 hundred years of the start of your campaign, faster than light (FTL) travel has been discovered and humanity’s reach has expanded. Suddenly, colonies are coming back into the fold, some far different from their Earth human roots.
Deep future science fiction can be troublesome. For example, Mindjammer humans are a varied and unusual bunch. Classic Old Earth humans can live to be 700 or so hundred years old. Consider that for a moment. If human life spans were like that now, there would be people alive now who lived through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the discovery of the New World, the Enlightenment, two World Wars, and an incredible explosion in technology, If they were born in Europe, Asia, or Africa, then four of the Earth’s seven continents would have been discovered in their lifetime. This is as alien from the humanity I am a member of as an elf would be. This is just the plain Jane humans.
Beyond basic humanity, there are hominids, synthetics, xenomorphs, and aliens. Hominids are branches of humanity that have evolved in a different direction, usually to better suit the planets on which they live. Short, muscular people from a high-gravity world and thin, spindly people from a low-gravity world are common examples of this, but there are several others presented. Synthetics are lifeforms that were made instead of being born. Androids and robots would be the most obvious examples, but Mindjammer goes so far as to include sentient spacecraft as a viable player race. In Mindjammer, almost everything has artificial intelligence, though playing as a sentient toaster might not be too exciting. Xenomorphs are humanoid animals created by humanity. Much like in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, these human-animal hybrids can vary widely in their ratio of traits. Thus, a Canid xenomorph could resemble a human with only slightly dog-like features, like excessive body hair and horrible breath, or be almost completely canine, but capable of sentience and spoken communication. Aliens are, as one would expect, creatures that developed independently of human interference.
Mindjammer’s approach to alien life is worth taking a moment to discuss. With hominids taking the place of Human Aliens and Rubber Forehead Aliens, the Aliens in Mindjammer are free to be truly alien. The examples in the book are a good starting point for using non-humanoid aliens, though things don’t quite go to the extreme of Starfish aliens. As a long time player of science fiction games that rely on the Star Trek and Star Wars tropes, it is nice to see truly alien Aliens.
The transhumanism undercurrent that Mindjammer has is definitely novel when compared to the classicism of Starblazer Adventures. While I dislike the lack of human characters in Fantasy games, I enjoy the fact that most Mindjammer games will be dominated by Dolphin Dudes and Crab Warriors wielding laser swords. By establishing that transhumanism is an old technology and is very common in the Commonality, Mindjammer skips the whinging and hand wringing that a more modern setting would no doubt drown itself in. Just give me my Cat Ninjas, already!
Beyond transhumanism, Mindjammer brings cyberpunk into Starblazer Adventures. I use the description ‘cyberpunk’ very loosely, as this is as similar to Neuromancer as it is Grey’s Anatomy. The ‘Mind’ in Mindjammer comes from the Mindscape, a shared neuronetwork that has enabled the Commonality to maintain communications. This novel idea makes the Commonality like a friendly version of the Borg or a more egalitarian version of the Guild Navigators in Dune.
For Gamemasters, the second half of Mindjammer presents an almost stunning amount of material. There are planets to explore and four fully fleshed out adventures. As Mindjammer is a setting with no real precedent, the well constructed GM sections make it easy to put together a campaign in a hurry. There are even pre-created player characters ready to go. Honestly, Mindjammer is so ingratiating that it practically begs to be run, even if only in the form of one-off games.
If you are planning on running a Starblazer Adventures campaign, particularly if you are planning on running one without using the default setting, Mindjammer has a lot to offer. The hominids and Xenomorphs are easy enough to slip into non-Mindjammer campaigns and the Aliens are interesting enough to put to use. A campaign based on Dune or Uplift, or even a low-tech cyberpunk campaign, practically begs for the use of the Mindscape from Mindjammer. Really, the only reason I would not recommend purchasing Mindjammer is if you are planning on going with a strictly Starblazer Adventures campaign. On word of warning, though: there is a second edition coming soon. The second edition has entirely new art and a new cover, so if you are planning on using Starblazer Adventures Second Edition, you might wait and pick up the second edition of this book as well.