Review in Summary
Death in Space (Kickstarted by Carl Niblaeus and published by Free League) feels like a jumble of several rulesets and settings put together because, in many ways, it literally is. Before even the table of contents, the book has a page acknowledging inspiration from half a dozen pieces of film media including Firefly, Blade Runner, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. It further declares drawing inspiration from several games including the ALIEN RPG which, I reviewed previously and Mörk Borg. Strangely not called out but also felt were influences from Frank Herbert’s Dune.
As you read through the relatively compact document, the aforementioned influences are readily apparent. Pieces of each of those crop up repeatedly and will leave you saying “hey didn’t I just see that in…?” The answer, for me at least, was yes. What you’ll find inside the pages is a rules-light, grim dark cosmic survival simulator that leaves much of the “survival” part of that equation up to the GM to interpret and enforce. It’s a good system if you don’t want an IP some people may already be familiar with clogging up your idea for Don’t Starve in spaaaace. With that said, it’s so open ended that many GMs may struggle with keeping things on the rails enough to handle a party coming from something very bounded like D&D or PF2, so definitely make sure you know what you’re getting into before you run it.
The World of Death in Space
In a relatively small corner of space that inexplicably doesn’t include Earth (which is, indeed, never mentioned anywhere in the book), a rare new gem kicked off first a gold rush which then escalated into a war between megacorps that went on for so long and was so bloody that nobody won and now everything is broken, sad, and fragile. The immediate area around the world which saw the “last stand” of this war is where every campaign starts.
The first thing you must decide is if you want a more intrigue and interaction focused game or an action-oriented adventure game as this will determine whether your “Hub” is a functioning spaceship or a part of The Iron Ring, a space station that has been falling apart for the last 10 years in orbit around that “last stand” planet.
Time travel is possible, although not intentionally, and generally only happens as the result of Perils from
touching the warp | giving Spice to a navigator a “Bridger craft” jump which is simultaneously described as moving “…through spacetime instantaneously between so-called bridging buoys,” and later as taking months to move between galaxies.
The main threats are profound scarcity of resources and an ominous, omnipresent “static” that infects technology and is some combination of computer virus and eldritch horror. Its provenance is never explained, nor is the strange mix of technology including starships that seem to work and feel a lot like ALIEN but then mix in the capacity to transfer consciousness into VR spaces and even hack other people’s minds.
Conflict Resolution (Dice)
We get a very familiar d20 + Ability score vs target number system, but, weirdly, every challenge has a target number of 12. Rolls can have advantage or disadvantage but are otherwise unmodifiable.
Character Creation and Advancement
Character creation is built around four ability scores: Body, Dexterity, Savvy, and Tech. The ability score generation leads to numbers between -3 and 3. If your base stats are so bad that they don’t total a positive number, you get some crutch from the game like a friendly NPC or a Cosmic Mutation, described in more detail below.
Next you roll from a table or choose an origin describing how your body exists. Options include things like “Ancient AI placed in a body vessel of organic material,” which is also never explained or referenced again. This will grant you small bonuses like “reroll any one roll per session” or “use your body to power a hand-held electronic device.” Several flavor traits are then rolled or chosen before the character is complete.
I don’t really have a better place to put this so I’ll put it roughly where the book does. The party also includes the “Hub” I talked about earlier. They really try to make it feel like another character, including giving it several tables of flavor traits it can roll or choose from. It has a certain amount of power output that can run modules. It has a few things in it by default and you can pay (an undefined amount of money) to upgrade your power core to support more modules and also purchase those modules and attach them to your ship/station section. More on this later.
Gaining xp is functionally identical to ALIEN (ask questions at the end of the scenario, for each yes get one XP) except the questions are slightly different. Spending it can increase your character’s base stats (which have no cap, but exponentially scaling costs), increase your max hp by a d4 for a small cost, or get you a Cosmic Mutation or second Origin for a large cost. This of course means that, if you can keep a character alive long enough, they become able to succeed at literally everything forever.
Combat is divided into two flavors: personal and ship. For personal combat, it’s going to feel very familiar to D&D or Pathfinder players. On your turn, you get to perform an action and move about 15 meters. Usually, your action will be to attack. Roll a d20, add your Body for melee or Tech for ranged and compare to their defense which is 12+dex for an unarmored human (armor increases it and other things may have higher defense ratings). Cover is a mechanic that can add to your defense rating if you want to attack back or provide full cover, preventing line of sight both ways.
Enemy stat blocks have a defense rating, hit points, either an attack bonus or human stats for Body/Tech, and morale. Just like Mörk Borg, monsters have a few places in combat where they might attempt to surrender, flee, or parley based on that morale stat.
The fact that you can move 15 meters is only vaguely relevant as there is no mention made of what distance means in combat apart from not being able to stab someone. Guns have no range listing and there are no penalties for anything. As far as I can tell, I could throw an “Accretion Shuriken” or shoot a flamethrower at someone from the top of a mountain several kilometers away and, as long as I could see them, I would still just be rolling d20+Tech vs their defense rating. This is an example of where the GM is expected to enforce some sensibility with no assistance from the rules.
Anyone can choose to make a “Risky Attack” which lets you roll an extra damage die on a success, but on a failure not only do they immediately get to counterattack you ignoring both regular turn order and action economy, but they also get to make a big choice for you (I’ll elaborate momentarily).
Initiative is “popcorn initiative” (check out where we talked about this in the Surprise and Initiative episode, feel free to ctrl+f the page for popcorn for a quick explanation) but with a goofy twist: whoever goes last in a turn gets to choose who goes first in the next turn. This incentivizes having as large a party as possible so that the enemy side runs out of people to pick before you do. Intentionally rolling low stats so you get the friendly NPC is suddenly a viable optimization tactic. Now that I’ve described that, I can say that the other penalty for failing a Risky Attack is that whoever you attacked chooses who goes next instead of you getting to choose.
Ship combat is a very stripped-down version of the Alien combat. It uses range bands (which is strange, given that personal combat doesn’t), and uses some of the lore of the world to describe why there’s an unspoken rule that you shouldn’t shoot people but instead should instead try to board them (all the tech is failing and new parts to repair things are hard to come by).
Initiative is still popcorn but a whole ship goes before choosing the next ship. This only vaguely matters because the only named position is pilot and all they do is, well, pilot. This section talks about “spacecraft with guns… fir[ing] on other spacecraft with a Tech check” but then doesn’t explain who can do that or from where.
Ships have “Frame damage” which is basically a pool of HP that will regenerate in downtime like players’ hp and a separate pool called Condition which is how all equipment works in this game.
Everything will eventually break in Death in Space. All equipment, including ships, has a condition rating. When used in combat or stressful situations, (or when a ship gets shot for maximum damage in ship combat) things have a chance to lose Condition. Repairing this takes spare parts that must either be bought or scavenged and time.
Unlike ALIEN, guns do track how many times you shoot them and require you to reload in combat, which feels extra punishing for no reason except to remind you that resources are scarce.
Food has a table full of listed costs but no mechanical effect. Spacesuits let you breathe for 7 hours which is ticked down on a tracker before needing their air replaced.
Equipment takes up slots which, also much like Alien, are based on your Body score.
Spacecraft use fuel which is expended either by failing piloting checks in combat or simply by flying from place to place. It also costs fuel to take off from a planet, and the game cares whether the planet is low, standard, or high gravity but then never mentions planet gravity again. Fuel needs to be purchased, perhaps even several times on a route between two places.
The primary unique mechanic is void points. When you fail an ability check or an attack roll, you get a void point, to a maximum of 4. You can spend them 1:1 to activate Cosmic Mutations or to gain advantage on a roll. If you fail that roll, you might suffer corruption which only has a small chance to have a mechanical effect but can do things like increase the damage you take or give you a disease that, on three failures before successes, outright kills you.
Interesting powers you can gain either at character creation or in advancement. There are 20 of them on a table which would seem to imply that randomness is involved in how you get them but isn’t ever mentioned. Some of them have great mechanical impact and others can be actively harmful like summoning something which then has a good chance to try to attack you.
I’ve been sprinkling small critiques throughout the review but really, there are many issues here. I am entirely willing to explore rules-light systems, but space is a hard place to be rules-light because of all of the complexity involved in simply existing.
It’s also very frustrating to see where some things are called out and then never mentioned again, including extrapolating from some of the mechanics that are present but are missing the logical extensions. Definite props for giving us a list of tables at the front of the book though and for making a setting that has a completely understandable feel.
Overall, it feels like a passion project that needed a professional touch to make it into something complete. If you’re willing to do that yourself, it can be a new setting for you to put your space RPG in, but it competes with several established systems that already have a good amount of support.
I will be the first to admit that I am someone who prefers a larger amount of crunch in a game. But I have absolutely been enchanted by rules-light systems in the past such as .dungeon, which I’ve talked about on the RPGBOT.Podcast. We played Mörk Borg and had a good time with it.
But unlike Mörk Borg, which neatly contains all the rules you need to play and allows you to fill in the rest with common sense, Death in Space alludes to rules concepts which are never again explained, making the rules-light game rely heavily on the GM to arbitrate huge parts of the game..
I don’t think I would ever personally be interested in trying Death in Space. I can absolutely see that the combination of space and cult-themed nihilism might appeal to some folks, but the characters being so weak means that they’re easy to kill, so it’s hard to invest in them. Many people enjoy that style of play, but I’m not those people.
Unlike Mörk Borg where this character disposability makes sense because the world will end in spectacular fashion soon, the setting of Death in Space encourages you to struggle to keep yourself alive against the elements and factions of people, and giving characters an infinitely high power scale, putting it at odds with itself.