Goin’ Rogueando. (An adventure with Rogue Stars!)
"So, what's your favorite sci-fi series?"
A common question, I would presume, in this hobby. We probably see and hear a lot of this Star Wars mumbo jumbo being dropped all around us, but how far it extends in to the "science" part is rather questionable. What about the good ol' Trek? Eh, well, it's a thing, and they tout dilithium crystals and warp drives and the like....but admittedly, neither of those grabbed me to the point of being an undying fan boy.
I always preferred science fiction to be more outlandish. If I were to watch Star Wars as a kid, my favorite parts were things like the Mos Eisley Cantina, or Jabba's palace. I liked seeing all of the cool, interesting creatures. The krayt dragon skeleton on Tattooine! C'mon, you can't tell me that didn't get your mind imagining what that thing was like alive! Come to think of it, if I had to pick a BIG sci-fi franchise, the Krayt dragon and sand planet gives it away....DUNE! Oh, yeah, the grand political struggles, the ideas of prescience, plans within plans, drug induced mental computing, sandworms, cloning, weaponized sexuality. That series had some amazing ideas in it, and was never properly represented on a television screen. 🙁
Until they make a proper Dune minis game however (actually, WH40k, or rather Rogue Trader, was VERY much influenced by Dune, but that's another article!), I have to go with an odd backup choice. Something more along the lines of Farscape, or Lexx. Here, you have a small band of (multi-species) ruffians, coated in flawed morals, unbalanced skillsets, and overall rough-around-the-edges trying to survive and make a buck whilst fighting through all kinds of crazy environments! There's no goody goody "force" or "prime directive telling you what to do. Just a gun and your wits.
That's how I would sum up the idea behind Osprey's 'Rogue Stars'.
At first glance, Rogue Stars appears to be another one of Osprey's generic blue rulebooks. They have quite a few of these, which are useful when you've become disenchanted with more mainstream systems but can't stand seeing your favorite minis tossed to the side.
Rogue Stars in particular, focuses on sci-fi skirmish encounters. This is NOT a straight up combat game however. These encounters are very objective based...almost to the point of them being small, tactical RPG encounters. This is somewhat of an unusual twist to this relatively short book. Actually, there are a lot of twists the way this game handles things...
First up, the activation system. It's roll to activate. GAH! I tend to hate those. I want my characters to DO stuff, not be denied actions because I messed up a roll. Well, Andrea Sfiligoi (yes, I had to look that spelling up. ;D) was the author behind this. This is the guy who wrote up Song of Blades and Heroes, a relatively popular, casual fantasy skirmish game. Blades uses a multi-dice activation system, rollng 1-3 d6's to attempt to activate your character based on their activation stat, which varies. If you fail multi-dice, you lose your turn. The system compensated a bit for this by giving you the option to only roll 1 die, but it severely limits your actions by doing so.
Rogue Stars, on the other hand, feels like an interesting evolution of this concept. The game uses d20s. The base activation roll is 8, for everybody, sans certain modifiers such as things like stress which you accumulate by taking actions. You still have the choice of rolling 1-3, each success gives you an action you may take. Each failure lets your OPPONENT attempt a reactive action! Reactions could be something like preemptively re-positioning itself behind cover, running towards you, shooting, etc. They could even attempt to steal the initiative away, but with a very high difficulty target number. This difficulty number is, importantly, modified by the opponents stress markers. The more actions they take, the easier it begins to become to steal away the rest of their turn and take yours. (Keep in mind, reactions are also accumulating stress on the reacting teams characters as well.)
This is a very interesting twist on the activation system as both players are engaged during each other's turns. You're technically, ~always~ playing! Not twiddling your thumbs while the other side goes through the motions. It's almost the point to where it becomes a resource management/risk reward deal. "Do I bother taking a reaction and filling my troops with stress? Should I try to steal initiative away now...or wait?" I really enjoy that because I don't have to be a sitting duck and can flip the opponents plans around on THEIR turn as well.
The next interesting bit, is the scenario generation system. I feel like this game was meant to fill the role of some of those one-off shows I mentioned earlier. Farscape and Lexx both had overarching story lines, but some episodes were just about the crew landing on some podunk planet and getting attacked by space leeches or the like. Rogue Stars has a series of charts the players are supposed to roll before the game. One determines the general scenario objective for the "attacker." Then the other determine the planet, and a "complication", which adds a twist to the whole game. You could roll up something like, a high gravity wasteland with explosive barrels. Or in the case of our game, a populated city, where two of our troops were old flames and couldn't shoot at each other. Hah! I can feel the wackiness start to manifest just by looking through these charts! I like that. It's what I like about Frostgrave as well. Let the game tell you a story! That's what D&D is supposed to do. That's what board games like Mansions of Madness 2e are supposed to do. Why not minis games also?
This game is really good at that.
Speaking of which, how exactly do we go about forming our ragtag band of astro scoundrels? More charts! A starting group is made up of 4-6 individual characters. You're given a choice of a generalized theme, such as Space Cops, Mercenaries, Miners, etc. and a tactical discipline that gives your team a bonus somehow, and then 200 xp (buy points) to fit your crew with some awesome gear and skills. This step can be the most time consuming part of this game as there are a LOT of options...and getting the balance just right can require a lot of tweaking.
For my first group, I quickly painted a few colors on some Reaper Bones IMEF figures to make them usable, and based my character creation off of how the models looked/what archetype they should be. I had a leader guy, a big heavy weapon guy, a crazy flamethrower, an agile ninja/psionic type and a sniper. After all of their skills and equipment, I found I was at like 350 points....YIKES! I had to eliminate a lot, but narrowed it down to skills and equipment I thought beneficial. So, the starting buys in this are TIIIIIGHT.
This is also a campaign game, so it's expected that you accumulate XP through mission scenarios, and use them to upgrade your characters with better skills and equipment. You don't earn a lot of XP in each mission though, so it could be a really long campaign season if you were to continue it with a group of friends.
"But, hey, are there downsides to this game?"
Well, yeah. The biggest, and most obvious is CHARTS. Charts are everywhere in this book! You need to outfit everyone, roll scenarios, check modifiers to target numbers, and so on, and so on. The book itself is short, but the content is dense. It's overwhelming at first. However, it's also something you get used to within the gameplay. You're only controlling 4-6 characters. Eventually, you remember how much damage your 4-6 guns do, or what ranges they are.
The damage charts also interest/scare me at the same time. You're obviously rewarded from rolling high, which determines hit location, but your opponent can roll high for defense which lowers the damage tier for wherever they got hit. (There are modifiers to all of this, armor blockage, some skills, etc.) At first, this all seemed somewhat intimidating and archaic in a sense...but honestly, during the gameplay I hit on a "flow' and I started to enjoy the system more. It's not simply the 40k, reference damage grid A with defense level, blah blah. It feels somewhat thematic. "I rolled a 19, so I want to hit that dude in the head where the likelihood of doing more severe damage is present!" Well, sirs and madams, in here that's pretty much how it works.
There's one gripe about equipment that I have. There is a gun called the "Entangler." It's basically a net gun, or a rope gun of some sort. If the opponent hits you with it, you have to roll a 10+ to avoid it. If you get hit, you're tangled up, prone. You can't do anything. ~anything~ Can't move, can't shoot, can't cast psionic spells....FOR THE REST OF THE GAME! The rules specify that you can attempt to break free if you, or one of your allies, has a "disentangler." That leaves a sour taste in my mouth. That's a WAY too powerful damage result without the prior knowledge that your opponent is taking an entangler so you can take the counter to it. "Maybe EVERYONE should just take entanglers and disentanglers all the time!" That's silly to have to say so.. The rules do say there is a proper time to reveal your squad to the opponent (attacker first I believe), so maybe that's the time you're supposed to quickly invest in one? I don't know, but my opponent had two of them, which made it seem like some spam/abuse was possible here, definitely in need of refinement.
Other than that particular result, characters can be awfully hard to kill because of that series of damage charts. Each individual character doesn't have a set number of wounds. Their toughness/skills rather determines how hardy they are through the damage results. Eventually, they wind up with pin and wound markers on them which prevents them from doing actions, and eventually will take them out of the game. This can be frustrating, but also very thematic, as nobody on your team is really supposed to be a "red shirt." They're all Captain Mals, Jaynes, and Washes. None of them should die, and they don't! (Ooooooooh, too soon? ;D)
In our particular game, Tim played a group of scoundrels (pirates) looking to interrogate a member of my squad after my ship crashed in to a city. I forgot to bring cars for use, but each car was technically able to be hijacked and used for transportation! Ironically, I brought a few Plast Craft colorED Infinity terrain buildings that matched up with Tim's awesome made-from-mini-crates high rise buildings! These looked really nice on a table together on a Frontline Gaming future city mat. Definitely an idea I need to steal in the future! 😉
Within the first few activations, he used that darn entangler to net my sniper girl...rendering her useless for the entire game. Yeah...no disentangler. :-/
Ideally, he would be able to entangle his target character (my ninja/psionic girl), and earn XP for performing an interrogation action next to her while prone/entangled. I did NOT want this to happen, so kept her hidden as much as possible!
He charged her area however, with the jetpack trooper trying to get to the target. But lucky rolls saved her a few times!
Upon stealing initiative, I did manage to creep out of cover areas and take a few medium range shots at his troops getting lucky on many of them. Much of his squad got knocked prone and started taking a lot of pin markers. Interestingly, one of the damage results is shooting an arm and knocking off the weapon, basically disabling their ranged attacks unless they pick it up. His rock man actually got his arms blown off, so could not use a weapon anyway. (this factors in to the campaign system.)
I continued to shoot the heck out of this guy, attempting to crumble him in to a fine talcum powder, but he just would not die. His tough stat kept him alive for many many attacks. It did feel very thematic for the type of character he was trying to portray; a large rocky fellow like Thing from Fantastic Four.
Over quite a few turns, I took two of his characters out of action, and put so many pin markers on him, that I just chose to exit the board before he got any further potshots in at his target character. This would prevent him from achieving his scenario success, and conceded the game.
Now, how do I feel about this game? It really intrigues me. It's a game that feels like a late-night, manic brainstorming session in Andrea Sfiligoi's head about where he could take the SoBaH system in terms of new directions. There's a lot thrown in here. You can make pretty much any kind of character you want, and they feel like they have much more depth than the SoBaH characters you throw together. There's a campaign system and a fun way of scenario generation. There isn't any "built-in" story to this. No fluff at all really. It's a future sci-fi game that's entirely emergent from the gameplay system itself. It's also one of those games that I feel like is *sooooo close* to being something great but just a bit too jumbled to get there. It's a game that would probably benefit drastically from a refined v2.0 ruleset/organization because it has a lot going for it.
After my game, I will admit I kept thinking about the game itself a lot. This has the potential to be really fun with the right group of people much in the same way getting together with a close group of friends is when playing an RPG. This isn't a game to bring to the game shop and play random patrons. It's information overload to a newbie. However, with a group of 3-4 regular, casual buddies, you could possibly write your own Farscape series with a system like this, and to me that's very important as a sign of a good game.