This book is as massive as the universe it describes, a rich sweep of imagination that carries you off into speculation about what might be, a future history that makes you itch to become a part of it – and, of course, because it’s a role-playing game, you can be!
Chapter 1, the Introduction, paints the broad strokes, describing what the whole book contains and providing a brief glimpse of the scope of the universe that underpins the game. However, if for some reason you don’t want to play in the default setting of the Commonality, you can use the ruleset in whatever science-fiction setting you please.
Then Chapter 2 dives in with the basics, explaining what the game is all about and what you need to play. Using the character sheet as a guide, the explanation moves on to the way in which a character is modelled using the ruleset, starting with aspects – short descriptive phrases that encapsulate the essence of the character – and then the skills and stunts that describe what he can do. Next comes an overview of task resolution and how dice work under this particular variant of the core FATE ruleset, including the all-important Fate Points and how to use them.
Primed with the basics, we move on to Chapter 3: Creating Characters. This begins with the importance of the whole gaming group deciding precisely what sort of game they want to play – no use rushing off to generate characters who will not fit in, after all. The discussion here is based around different types of games you could play in the Commonality of Humankind, but it is adaptable to some other setting if that’s your choice. One important concept is that of ‘issues’ – as in, what will be the key issues that the characters will care about… things they want to protect, or accomplish or which could cause problems or threats that they will have to overcome. These may change as the game proceeds, some being dealt with and new ones arising, but having a general idea of what matters to the party or individual characters is a good idea (and one worth pinching, ah, being inspired to include, whatever game you are planning to play).
The suggestion is made that the best results are achieved from creating the entire party as a group, in an interactive process, rather than people creating their own characters individually or the GM turning up with some pre-made ones. Using a narrative process, character creation can be seen as the first session of the game itself rather than a precursor to play. It all starts with your character concept, the overall idea behind the character that you want to play. This will likely include his genotype, culture and occupation, but it’s a whole lot more. You also need to decide on a ‘trouble’ which is something that persistently causes complications for him. It might be a personal issue or it may be external, people or organisations that are forever causing him problems. These are rounded out a bit as you develop the character’s backstory with the novel addition of a more detailed scene from his recent life, which ideally includes at least some of the other characters in the party.
Only now do you get down to the game mechanical part of character creation, deciding on skills and such like. The next few chapters cover everything in much more detail, laying out the options and explaining how they shape your character and define what he is capable of doing. As you’d imagine, there is a vast range of choices to reflect the diversity found in such a huge universe. Reading through the Cultures, Genotypes and Occupations chapter, for example, provides a good overview of what’s out there as well as telling you what you can play. Everything roils together, each choice that you make about your character has ramifications for him and the universe around him. It makes for an elegantly integrated character creation system that is far removed from the conventional routes of picking from set lists things that are ‘best fit’ to your concept, or starting with the mechanics and only then deciding what your character is actually like and what makes him tick that so many games force upon you.
Due to the pervasive Mindscape, skills are handled differently from most games. Most characters will have Mindscape access and so gaining knowledge and even techniques becomes far easier. The skills that a character has thus become ones of knowing how to use all that information, much broader areas of capability than those found in the skill lists of other games. To enhance them, characters may also have ‘stunts’ which reflect special training or natural abilities that use skills in different ways. Stunts notwithstanding, all skills are used in four main ways: to overcome some kind of obstacle, to create an advantage, to attack or to defend. It’s an interesting and novel way of looking at skills, and extremely flexible when it comes to determining what the character is actually capable of doing… and you can know or do just about anything provided you can come up with a narrative justification for it.
There’s a wealth of enhancements and equipment available. As money is no longer used in the Commonality, access to any item is generally based on desire, but again there are certain things that you’ll need to come up with a narrative justification for having. This may well come from your chosen occupation or other such factors. One thing to note is that virtually every item has ‘intelligence’ – and may have its own skills and stunts as well.
All equipped and ready, we then come to Chapter 9: Playing the Game. This explains, in great detail with plenty of examples, the core rules of the game and how actions are resolved, including the use of ‘Fate Dice.’ Familiar to those who have played another game using the FATE ruleset, everything is explained from scratch here as this is a standalone work containing the full rules pertaining to this particular game. Everything is covered here including the vital areas of combat and movement, as well as other examples of task resolution.
Next is Chapter 10: Gamemastering Mindjammer. As has been demonstrated by the way characters are created, this is a collaborative game and players can have input at a deeper level that is often the case: think of the game master as a chairman rather than a god. Sections look at preparing a game and running it, including vital bits like knowing when to get the dice out and how to make failure as much – if not more – a part of the story than success. It’s all about the story, the shared tale you are all there to enjoy.
Chapter 11: The Mindscape delves deep into what is probably the defining characteristic of the setting: the all-pervasive lattice that is communications medium, data store and so much more. Understanding this is key to understanding the setting – and whilst you can use this ruleset to play in any far future setting, this is a unique and fascinating place and the one these rules were written for in the first place. It’s a bit like having instant access to the entire internet in your own head… only it’s much more than that. The internet is just baby steps compared to the Mindscape.
Next, Chapter 12: Constructs looks at entities like starships and space stations than can be used by the party. They can be sentient beings in their own right – you can even play one if you want – and if so have skills and stunts just like any other character in the game. If you think that being a space station might be a bit restricting do not worry, you can have an avatar to interact with flesh-and-bones characters, as well as of course using the Mindscape to communicate with them. Rules and other materials specifically for constructs are to be found here as well.
This is followed by Chapter 13: Starships and Space Travel. Your game might spend all its time in one place, or at least have all the action at destinations rather than in transit, but part of the essence of a star-faring game is that you do get to see a bit of the universe. This looks at how space travel works and the great variety of vessels that travel there. Next comes Chapter 14: Vehicles and Installations, which covers everything planetside.
The next few chapters look at the fabric of the universe that is the core setting for this game. Everything from organisations to planets, cultures to alien life. It makes for a fascinating read, and ideas spawn for the adventures that could be had in such a rich setting. Yet despite the wealth of information, there is considerable scope for your own imagination to insert things that will be interesting, to stamp your own spin on the setting.
Eventually Chapter 22: Scenarios and Campaigns and Chapter 23: Themes, Genre and Style provide a whole bunch of information to start you off planning your own adventures, adventures that will prove memorable for the whole group. There is masses of stuff here, well worth the reading in general terms of constructive advice for planning games never mind the more directed focus of preparing for this particular game.
The final chapter presents the Darradine Rim, a fully-developed area with plenty of solar systems to visit and adventures to be had in them. A collection of useful forms and ready-reference sheets round off the book.
When I read Mindjammer (the novel) I knew this was a universe I wanted to play in. Now with a game that elegantly reflects it into playable form, I can.
[5 of 5 Stars!]