Welcome to my entry for the first Obsolete Simulations Roundup blog carnival! The carnival is the brainchild of Tim over at The Savage AfterWorld blog to celebrate forgotten gems of the RPG world.
For my entry into the carnival I’m taking a look at Justifiers, the 1988 science fiction role playing game released by StarChilde Publications.
“You’re a ‘Beta’, a Beta Class Humanoid Lifeform. Part human and part animal. The property of the Corporation that spawned you.
Your job: Justification and Pacification of new worlds. Find exploitable resources and eliminate dangerous indigenous lifeforms.
Your goal: SURVIVE! Stay alive until you can buy your way to freedo. Till then your(sic) one of the… Justifiers”
– Justifiers RPG, back cover
Justifiers is a creation of its time. In 1988 corporate culture and the “me” generation were still going strong. Cyberpunk was riding high and anthropomorphic animals had exploded onto the pop culture scene thanks to comics and cartoons like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Thundercats. Star Trek: The Next Generation was going into its second season and the independent publishing market for games and comics was still going strong. Justifiers draws upon all of these and rolls them into a wonderfully gonzo melange of 80’s influences.
My first encounter with Justifiers happened in a run-down gaming store in Cincinnati back around 1990 or 91. Back then it was still possible to pick up a new RPG for a reasonable price, just to see what it had to offer. This was before the era when you needed to buy multiple $60 rule books to get into a game. Thankfully things have swung back in the other direction, in no small part thanks to the Old School Renaissance, pdf, and print on demand.
So when I walked into the store and found a box set of Justifiers for under $20 that included several sourcebooks and adventures, there was no question that it was coming home with me.
The game mechanics are clunky, but the world building is delightfully tight with a gonzo feel and enormous adventure potential, which is what I am focusing on in part one of my review.
Characters in Justifiers are genetically engineered animal/human hybrids, called Betas, combining the special strengths of various species with the intelligence and body structure of humans. These creatures are “born” into indentured servitude, being in debt to the company that created them. Freedom can be won if the Betas can earn enough money to reach their “buy back” price, repaying the company for their existence. But the company is reluctant to let go of assets they’ve spent so much time, money, and training to develop, and society is little help for what it considers second-class beings. Thus Betas are compelled to work as company agents in the hopes that they survive long enough and earn enough money to some day reach “buy back” and gain their freedom. They do this by working as Justifiers, highly trained explorers sent to newly discovered planets in order to survey them and stake a claim for their employers.
This is where the world building in Justifiers really takes off. In the 24th Century, traditional governments are a thing of the past. A collection of megacorporations reign supreme and the most powerful of them all is Terran TransMatt Specialties, Inc. which is the sole supplier of the TransMatt device. The TransMatt is like a Stargate, a large fusion powered portal that can project matter at faster than light speeds. TransMatt devices are how humanity is able to colonize other worlds.
However, the system does have limitations. First, the portals are only one-way. To get back, you’ll need to assemble a return portal once you’ve reached your destination. Second, it does not allow faster than light communications. “The fastest way to get a message anywhere in the galaxy is to put it in your pocket and step through a TransMatt portal.” Third, there is a limit to the size and mass you can send through the portal at any one time. This limits the size of the shuttles used to 20′ x 20′ in diameter and 70′ in length, and limits the available resources to whatever can be fit within its confines. Lastly, TransMatt is dangerous. If you materialize in space already occupied by matter the resulting explosion will wipe the entire team out of existence.
When a company wants to claim a planet a Justifier team is deployed in a shuttle and TransMatted into orbit around the target planet. From there the shuttle has a limited ability to stay in space, usually long enough to launch weather, communications, and survey satellites before the team has to select a landing site. Once the shuttle is down, it will never fly again. The team is left on its own on an unknown world with only the supplies they have on board and what they can find on the planet. The justifiers need to begin surveying the world, identifying threats and exploitable resources, and assemble a TransMatt device that will allow them to return home.
The internal logic of the setting is beautiful. Conflict is built in at the very core of the game, between the Betas and their employers/owners and between the betas and society. The technology isolates the players on unique alien worlds, offering adventures that evoke Star Trek and Stargate (released in 1994), forcing them to survive based on their wits. A Beta team never knows what they’ll encounter once they go through the TransMatt gate and the GM is free to come up with wild encounters to surprise and threaten the team. In addition, the planet and its unknown dangers are not the only threats awaiting the players. Rival corporations may send their own Justifier teams to claim jump the planet, or possibly the players will be the claim jumpers. Control of the planet rests in whichever corporation opens a return gate first, and it doesn’t matter if one Justifier team wipes out the other to do it.
The adventures in Justifiers isn’t limited to planetary expeditions either. Back on the home worlds, corporate espionage is a constant threat. Players may have to contend with saboteurs, or be courted to defect by other corporations. Betas who don’t toe the line may face discipline and unfair reprisals from their corporate masters, who can throw roadblocks up to stop the agents from reaching their buy backs with fines. An underground free Beta movement may seek to recruit the characters, offering them escape to one of the free Beta colonies. While the planets the Justifiers are sent to offer Star Trek adventure, the worlds they call home are cyberpunk dystopias filled with intrigue, rebellion, and chaos.
The Justifiers’ universe is filled with a rich diversity and the opportunities for adventure are legion. It offers the right mix of gonzo science fiction elements to satisfy gamers that are looking for something different, and for that alone I recommend digging up a copy and giving it a look.
You can find copies through various online sources, such as Noble Knight Games and the books are also available in .pdf format from Drive Thru RPG. A new edition was released in 2010 by a German company, but as of now there isn’t an English language version.
That’s all for part one. In part two I’ll dive into the betas themselves and the game mechanics.
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