I love science fiction games.
I don’t get to play them often, but it’s a genre that is always near and dear to my heart and I’ve collected quite a few rules sets that don’t see nearly enough time at the table.
My latest acquisition is Bandits and Battlecruisers by Albert Rakowski, author of the Underworld Kingdom blog; an OSR blog with a focus on weird science fiction and fantasy.
Bandits and Battlecruisers is an old school science fiction game that uses 0e Dungeons & Dragons as its foundation and is an outgrowth of Rakowski’s free science fiction supplement Terminal Space. The difference is that Terminal Space is a supplement that blends science fiction and Lovecraftian horror, while Bandits and Battlecruisers is more of a complete game that focuses on a Flash Gordon style swords and ray gun genre. The book is available in both print and PDF editions and I own a physical copy.
The book is in digest format, something I’m not used to with game books but which works nicely. It’s an attractive book with a good selection of pulp sci-fi artwork gleaned form public domain sources. The layout is nice and uncomplicated and without many typos. I suspect there was some last minute changes to the layout, as every page reference is inaccurate.
The game is rules-light, based on original edition Dungeons & Dragons, and anyone familiar with early D&D will be familiar with the conventions. While B&B does contain enough rules to run on its own, it is more of an extensive supplement rather than a stand alone game and someone looking to make their first foray into OSR gaming would be better off starting with a different book. This game is targeted at the existing OSR fan base.
Character creation rules make use of the traditional D&D attributes but after that there are several significant changes. The rules offer several optional attributes that the game master may choose to use, depending on how he or she would like to tailor the game’s feel. These include attributes such as reflexes, willpower, and sanity. Only general suggestions are made for how to use these optional attributes and no bonus/penalty information is given, but the GM can model their effects based on the existing traditional attributes.
The game also has a Tech Level attribute which allows for the creation of characters ranging from Caveman to Star Child status. Characters with an attribute from 9-12 are rated as Modern Man, with Modern Man apparently defined as contemporary to our 21st century tech level and not that of the game setting.
Another diversion from D&D is that B&B is a skill based, classless system. Characters are differentiated by a short list of five percentile based skills; Spaceship Operations, Spaceship Command, Repair, Science, and Arcane Lore. All characters have these five skills and they improve as the characters gain levels. Differentiation comes from a skill bonus determined by the character’s Intelligence attribute that can be added to one skill when the character gains a level. Someone who always adds the bonus to their Spaceship Operations skill will be a better pilot. A character who adds it to their Arcane Lore will be a better mystic. Using it on different skills each level will result in a jack-of-all trades.
Having some level of skill in all areas is suitable for the pulp sci-fi genre and this includes the casting of spells, though spell casting is handled in a unique way. All characters gain the ability to cast spells at level three, however casting isn’t done through traditional D&D memorization. Instead the spell, “must be made in the form of a magic scroll, potion, powder or even a wand or enchanted item.” This leads to spell casting being a more rare and involved process, yet available to everyone.
Next is a section about creating player character aliens that includes a long random mutation table and a section on Alien PC Motivations and Bizarre Alien Features. The mutations are mostly cosmetic and good for flavor without giving big advantages. Defining the motivations for a PC by random roll feels constraining for an OSR product and are best used as suggestions or for NPC alien generation.
There are good sections for creating alien monsters and a nice example xeno-bestiary is included. A simple and effective set of rules covers spaceship creation and combat as well as solar system generation. Rounding out the book is a section on giant space monster creation, with more example space-beasts provided.
Bandits and Battlecruisers relies on a number of random tables. These are of the “keyword” variety, meant to inspire the game master rather than give him or her specific answers. For example, under the Society & Civilization table you may get the result, “Caste”. No further information is given, all the details of the caste system are up to the GM to determine.
There are several things about Bandit’s and Battlecruisers that mark it as a framework for the do-it-yourself GM to build on and not a truly complete game. There is no stated setting though one is strongly implied from the artwork and language. No beginning adventure or adventure seeds are included. There is an extensive list of equipment, including rules for the effects of high tech weapons, but no base weapon damage is provided. That information can be drawn from other D&D books or decided by the GM. PC hit dice are listed, but it’s not specified which die should be used. The implication seems to be a D6, which is given in the alien creature section as the one used for “normal” size beings, but it’s never clearly stated for player characters.
One other aspect that should be mentioned is that while the game has the flavor of pulp stories like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, it’s still rooted in D&D sensibilities. New characters are as fragile as any 1st level dungeon delver, which may come as a surprise to players planning on jumping into action with rayguns blazing.
Bandits and Battlecruisers is a quintessential niche product. It’s target audience is OSR gamers who love the sword and raygun genre and want a toolkit that offers inspiration while leaving the heavy lifting to the GM. It’s also a great example of how a person with dedication and passion can produce a nice book through print on demand. If you’re looking for a complete game that you can pull out and use without extensive prep time, or that sticks closer to mainstream science fiction, you’ll want to look elsewhere. If you’re on the fence, download Terminal Space first and give it a look. If you like what you see, Bandits and Battlecruisers may be for you.
The author’s blog is Underworld Kingdom, which can be found here or from my blogroll.