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Justifiers RPG – OSR Carnival, Pt. 2 – Betas and Mechanics

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Welcome to part two of my entry in the Obsolete Simulations Roundup blog carnival!  Part one can be found here and covers the setting of the 1998 science fiction RPG, Justifiers.

The heart of Justifiers are the Betas; anthropomorphic human/animal hybrids owned by the corporations that created them.  Players roll up their characters to generate base attributes, then select a Beta animal type.  This hybrid template augments their character’s attributes and gives them other special abilities.  For example, a grizzly bear Beta has enhanced speed, strength, teeth and claws, and can track by scent.  A bat Beta can fly, has sonar, and can track by hearing.  The core book offers a nice selection of animal types to choose from and each source book adds more options.

Playing anthropomorphic animals is the main point of Justifiers, but for players looking for a less fuzzy choice the rules also include options for humans from high gravity worlds and genetically augmented humans, evoking the Replicants from Blade Runner.  Additional sourcebooks include further options, such as playing aboriginal races from colony worlds, and for the truly gonzo experience you can create a Gamma.  Gammas are the offspring of two Betas, combining the animal abilities of both parents into a truly bizarre combination.  Adding to the mix are rules for psionics and cybernetic enhancements.

The concepts in Justifiers are a lot of fun, unfortunately they’re burdened with a clunky rules set.  In particular the character creation rules feel complicated for the sake of complexity and fiddly without elegance.

Justifiers is a percentile base system and players start by rolling up their character’s seven attributes with straight d100 rolls.  Attributes are Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Presence, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Agility.  Players can order the stats as they like and replace their lowest roll with a 65%.  However this is the first place where the rules and concept are at odds.  Betas are genetically engineered to be physically superior, but this method will generate a wide diversity of ability levels and it is quite possible to end up with all low scores.  Certain attributes will be enhanced when the player selects his or her Beta type, but for an engineered species it would seem more appropriate to use a matrix that will generate a more narrow range of results, perhaps with 65% as the average, and making exceptionally low scores the statistical outliers.

Once the player has their seven attributes, they run a series of formulas to generate the character’s seven statistics.  These are Mental Strength, Body, Resilience, Base Speed, Base Skill Level, Base to Strike, and Damage Bonus.  Each statistic has its own formula, usually the combination of two attributes divided by ten.

The character then rolls to see if they have psionic abilities, having a 5% chance on a d100, with the character getting between one and five powers based on their roll.  This makes psionic Betas very rare and mental powers substantially increase the Beta’s buy back value with the corporation.  The game also has basic rules for cybernetic parts and a player may option to have such replacements, again adding to the buy back value of the Beta.

Justifiers has a large section of skills to choose from, determined by their primary career focus and cross training.  I like the concept of a betas having a wide scope of skills, but several skills are of questionable necessity, such as math and reading and writing one’s own home language.  Given the highly trained nature of the Betas, it seems superfluous to apply percentages to skills specifically listed as addition and subtraction and for literacy.  These are not the only skills that feel redundant, while other staple skills like stealth and concealment are either missing or rolled into the surveillance skill.

Another strange choice is how damage works.  The character has points from both Constitution and Body statistics and specifically states that the Body points are expended first.  This lead me to believe that Body would work as some form of stun, possibly recovering faster or having some other different game effect.  However healing rates for both statistics are the same.  There are only two cases where these values are treated differently; during character advancement where level adds to the Body score, and radiation exposure that effects each score differently.  This leads to the question, would a more streamlined single attribute be better or are there other reasons for the two statistics that the designer had in mind?

Where the character generation rules feel overly fiddly, the combat rules are surprisingly sparse in details.  Combat is based on skill rolls modified by circumstance modifiers, but only a handful of example modifiers are given.  Rules for armor are fine, but rules for basic ideas like cover and full automatic fire are noticeably absent.  Presumably the GM would assign a circumstance modifier for cover, but none is given in the examples.  Instead of automatic fire, machine guns simply have a larger number of attacks per round.  Critical wounds cause internal damage that causes damage each round until treated, but the persistent damage is based on 25% of the damage caused by the wound.  This means it must be calculated and tracked on top of everything else going on during combat.

Individually these and other rules quirks are not major flaws, but collectively they lead to an inconsistent and confusing whole.  I constantly had the feeling that I was either missing design notes or that rules had been created on a case-by-case basis without regard for the overall flow of the system. It’s unfortunate, because the rules bog down what is otherwise an exceptionally interesting game.

In 2010 a German gaming company released a new edition of Justifiers, reportedly with a new set of rules.  However there isn’t an English translation, so I don’t know if the mechanisms have received the overhaul they so desperately need.

The core book includes a good section of equipment and a sample adventure.  The sample adventure is particularly good, as it both highlights the standard planetary mission style and gives the GM an example of standard operating procedures for a Justifier team.

The sourcebooks for Justifiers are quite nice.  Each is printed in digest format, which was uncommon for the time.  The artwork is very good, on par with the better black and white indie comics of the late 80’s and limited only by the quality of printing available for its reproduction.  For a small run independent game, Justifiers also has a large number of sourcebooks.  My box set includes the core book, two planetary survey adventure books, a book on the Beta hybrids called Gammas, and an aboriginal species book that includes rules for adding magic to the game.  I’m aware of four other sourcebooks that were released; two more adventure books, a book on the corporations, and a cybernetics book.

I have no desire to run a game using the Justifiers rules, but I would definitely recommend using the universe and mining the sourcebooks for ideas.  As mentioned in part one of my review, the books are available in .pdf format from Drive Thru RPG.

JustifiersBook

That’s it for part two.  Stay tuned for part three, where I discuss rules alternatives and adventure seeds.

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Justifiers RPG – OSR Carnival, Pt. 1 – Setting


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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.

JustifiersBoxSet

That’s all for part one.  In part two I’ll dive into the betas themselves and the game mechanics.

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Posted by on December 29, 2013 in Cyberpunk, Gaming, Science Fiction

 

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Coming Soon…

The Savage Afterworld blog will be hosting the first Obsolete Simulations Roundup blog carnival!

This Sunday, December the 29th, a number of OSR blogs will be picking an old RPG system to discuss.  You can find a list of who will be discussing what posted on The Savage Afterworld site.

For my contribution, I’ll be diving into the 1988 science fiction RPG, Justifiers.

So drop by the carnival and read up on some forgotten gems of gaming history!

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Posted by on December 27, 2013 in Blog News, Gaming

 

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