“System Book 2: Xibalba is the second in a series of books by Spica Publishing that present a detailed planetary system with scientifically accurate physical data and an interesting setting to enable Referees to run exciting adventures there.”
This brief statement from the introduction sums up why I really like this product … it delivers on that promise. Too many adventures seem to start with an Earth-like world with giant purple dinosaur hampsters (or some other credibility stretching combination of “animal”, “plant/insect” and “color”) and a world that has been settled for thousands of years and “was, is, and forever more shall be” pretty much what you see right now. When you arrive at Xibalba, you get a sense that you are visiting a real place with a living history at a specific point in time. If you had visited this place 20 years ago, you would have found a very different place than it is today. You suspect that if you return in another 20 years, you will find it has continued to change and evolve and grow.
Since the book is divided into three sections, it seems reasonable to review each of the sections in order:
After the Color Cover and Title/Credits/Contents page, is a one page introduction. There are two things that a potential buyer should know from the introduction:
First, there are some other books that might be useful: Traveller Main Book would be helpful for running Xibalba with the Traveller rules system. The rules on asteroid mining in System Book 1: Katringa would be useful if the referee wants to stay in Xibalba for a while. Xibalba is compatible with the larger Outer Veil setting by Spica Publishing.
Second, “these books can be used for any science fiction role playing game as the specific rules involved have been kept to a minimum.” So you need none of the books listed above to use and enjoy Xibalba. Any rules set that will let you visit another star system will work … it is that system neutral.
THE XIBALBA SYSTEM
Immediately after the introduction is a full page summary of the entire Xibalba system. If you are like me and things like “an A1 V star” mean nothing to you without siting down with wikipedia (far too much work), then you will like the short paragraphs at the top of the page. I found “Xibalba is a bleak, empty system consisting of three charred rockballs, a dispersed asteroid belt and a superjovian gas giant orbiting the cooling corpse of a star” to be one of the most useful sentences in the entire book. In one short statement it paints a picture of the system that I can offer to players that is far more vivid and provoking of an emotional state and mental image than many strings of hexadecimal planetary data (like most Traveller star systems are described with). Along with the text overview, I appreciated the color image of the solar system that clearly identifies the orbits of the major planets and gas giant, the staggering width of the asteroid belt, and the vast number of eccentric orbit comets in the inner system. Useful information at a glance … I love it.
For those with more scientific tastes, if you need to know the location of the habitable zone around the star (0.025 AU to 0.055 AU), it is in there. So are the many strings of hexadecimal planetary data, stellar luminosity and effective temperature and lots more stuff to gladden your technical heart. At the bottom of the page is a terrific little table listing the distance and travel time between all of the worlds and major asteroid settlements that will save you a lot of work during a game.
Each of the five ‘worlds’ in the system (three rock balls, an asteroid colony and a gas giant) are then presented with a picture, table of technical data and a short description. I liked the subtle details that make each place memorable and different from the other worlds, like a volcanically active world that erupts with freezing water, nitrogen and carbon dioxide ices raining down as bright spots on the dark surface.
After this comes about a page of History on the system. While Traveller histories usually begin hundreds or thousands of years ago and present a string of irrelevant dates, events and facts, Xibalba is completely different. First, the history only begins 43 years ago, and second almost every word in it was both interesting and relevant (if not essential) to understanding the atmosphere and nature of the Xibalba system and people.
Finishing up this section is about two pages of ‘what everyone knows’ about the mysterious phenomenon, the challenges of living in (or visiting) Xibalba and the image from the cover. I don’t want to say more, because I don’t want to spoil any of the surprise.
This section opens up by painting a great picture of the tone and character of the place beyond the technical details and all about the people who live here. What a buyer needs to know is that this is not a ‘zombie hoard’ or ‘chainsaw wielding psycho’ Horror adventure. This is about mystery and wonder. I liked this quote “The unsettling occurrences in the system drive its inhabitants closer together, huddling in the darkness in their habitats much like villagers in an isolated, lonely settlement surrounded by foreboding, unknown wilderness.”
Next comes some data on incorporating this adventure into the overall Outer Veil setting. If you have no intention of using Outer Veil, don’t sweat it … this is less than a quarter of a page.
A half page of ‘referee’ data and good advice on the ‘things that go bump in the night’ aspect of Xibalba comes next. This is followed by 4 adventure seeds linked to the unique nature of Xibalba itself.
Rather than presenting a single definitive explanation for the mystery, Xibalba concludes with five explanations that run from deep into the ‘soap opera’ realm to the extreme ‘hard science’ end of the spectrum. Each referee gets to pick his own one true explanation, several possible explanations, or just leave it a mystery. Each possible explanation was thoughtful and held potential for more fun and adventure.
“All too often in science fiction RPGs life and travel in space is taken for granted or considered 'routine': everything is already explored, nothing is a frontier anymore and any sense of mystery is gone. The central goal of this book is to serve as a reminder that, while Humanity may have the ability to colonize and 'conquer' space, there are some things that cannot be anticipated and that will not be readily understandable. There are plenty of places where the infinite dark that surrounds a frail human colony will feel overwhelming.”
Setting aside everything else in this review, if the above quote from Xibalba stirs something inside of you, then you owe it to yourself to buy Xibalba and check it out. If that quote captures nothing of what you want in an adventure, then Xibalba is probably not for you.