Space Madness is an interesting RPG. I mean that in the sense that the RPG is very interesting, but also in that I mean that its very existence is an interesting story. Perhaps that’s fitting for a book as directly inspired as Lovecraft as any out there.
Space Madness originated as a half jesting bet on a message board, and grew from there.Its author, Bobby Derie , a prolific author about the Lovecraft Mythos and RPG fan, had been seeking feedback on a project of his for the better part of a year and finally thrwew out the challenge. “If you give feedback on my idea, I will write you an entire RPG.” After some time, someone finally took him up on it, and to his word, Bobby actually delivered. A full RPG created around three words. Atompunk, Mythos, Wands. Originally published via forum posts, after interest grew, the book was bound, formatted, art added and available for print or PDF by the crew at Feymarket.
I have a preview PDF that was given out way before it was officially published by the editor (and internet contest winner). This means two things. First, my PDF is not accurate to the book anymore, and contains no art. And second, I am reviewing the physical book. To use art for this review, I reached out to Feymarket, and they sent me the original public domain reference files. These are occasionally modified slightly in the book, but many are used as is. I tried to pick raw as used art, but some may have slight changes.
From a physical standpoint, the book stands out quickly on the shelf. It’s stark white, with solid black highlights make it different from the norm. The cover overall is a really nice piece that wraps around the binding and onto the back, where it reveals a large shot of a lovecraftian entity towering over a city. The use of public domain art throughout could be called cheating, if it didn’t work so well. Each piece really does look like it was selected based on the writings, and commissioned. The print on demand quality is a little cheap, and the dark heavy inked second page is almost visible through the blank cover, which is a shame. The pages are also not the most high quality, but I can’t help but imagine I’m reading a pulp adventure book, made of cheap recycled unsold print, like the readers from the time when Atompunk, or Retro-futurism was simply “Science Fiction”.
The book starts in a way I wish more RPGs did. It devotes the opening third of the book to the setting and world building. This is without a doubt the strong point of Space Madness!, and I can’t help putting the book down, while I follow some wild thought or tangent spurred by an example or reference. Every page has multiple adventure ideas that I want to run, and struggling with the problem every indie RPG fan has. How do I find someone and make them learn this and run it for me?
It does this through something I’m always a big fan of in world building. Throw away references. Not every little detail in a list of events is actually spelled out, but just enough to get the gist. A mention to the Riots at Arkham Station, or the lessons learned from the Colour from Space. We know what those things might look like, just because we, the reader, are Lovecraft fans. One of the things, that seems minor, that the book doesn’t spare details on is the look and ascetic. Styles and fashions of the various orders are all detailed, along with architecture trends, the specific looks of alien species. We can all google Arkham and get some inspiration for what might be involved in the riots, even if we may be a little too bat themed for the actual inspiration. We have no insight into the the Bhlemphroim of Saturn. That is where the book spends it’s time, and it pays off.
One thing traditional faction based RPGs often struggle with is making a party. Why do groups of different, competing factions each send one person out on an adventure? As players, we usually hand wave past it, and just have a Gangrel, Brujah, Lasombra, and Malkavian decide to team up just because that’s what was interesting to us. Its often a weak point in the story we fast forward through so we can tell the story we want. What’s the alternative? Just play a party of all Harpers, and everyone have the same power set? That can be fun now and again, but most of the time, getting everyone to agree is a challenge.
Space Madness! solves this problem with the creation of the Space Central Command. In Space Madness!, players take the role of Space Rangers working for SCC. SCC is an independent agency that dances the line of official military, police, assassins, smugglers, and general adventuring duties players expect from an RPG. The SCC is composed of various orders, which function similarly to classes, and any given mission may hold an interest to a collection of the orders. Its a system designed specifically for players to actually belong to opposing factions and still work together, but in setting it works.
Each order is given a couple pages, devoted to their history, the sort of quests they excel at, and their unique characteristics. It doesn’t drone on and on about some setting backstory you don’t care about though. Its pretty efficient prose designed to give you what you need, build the world and move on. One thing that comes out of the orders section is a clarity of role. The orders are not the government, and the rangers are not space cops. They may work for the government, and they may perform space cop duties now and again, but they very specifically are not those things. This is a great distinction to make, because it allows the players to dance a little bit in the grey area of the law without feeling an obligation to uphold it. Examples are given of conflicts between rangers and local space cops, and times when their interests may not align. The players are more Chris Adams and his Magnificent Seven than Andy Griffith and his pal Barney Fife, rolling into a hot situation, settling the dispute and moving on to new adventure in the stars.
Once the who is described, and the players get a feel for the sort of characters they will play, the book moves into telling you where. It breaks out each of the major planets, and gives a run through of each, with your standard worldbuilding info. Each one, gets a few pages, following the same “just enough, and tease a lot” approach that works well throughout.
At its core, Space Madness!, has two main human factions. The Federation is a Star Trek style post scarcity utopia. Making a villain faction when everyone is provided for, but Space Madness! does a good job. It pulls out the Union-Republika. If the Federation is an idealized capitalized society, the U-R is a demonized communist one, literally headed by a group of brains in jars that are interconnected. One thing I like a lot is that the Federation is the good guys, and generally cares for people, but the bad guys are generally better. In this setting, computers were never invented, and the Federation employs perfectly memory trained human’s for similar effect, but the U-R modifies those humans for a task, and a Z-3 is the equivalent. And U-R ranks go through Z-5.
It’s all done tongue in cheek, and leans into the cold war themes that echo when writing retro-futuristic games, which can be fun. There is some modernization applied though, and many, if not most, of the named NPCs of important rank are women, and plenty of alien factions are headed by women. It also does a good job of making a point not to use traditional Anglo-Saxon names for every character, and even if the art is all black and white, I think you can assume the characters are not. It could have done a little better in the geopolitical region-ing though. The Federation is NorthAM, SouthAM, MesoAM, Australia, Central Africa and India. The U-R is Asia, Africa and Pacifica, along with the oceans floor. Africa, Asia, and Pacifica being the villains is a little worn out now-a-days. I’m glad they picked some of Africa for the good guys, but maybe flipping Australia and Asia between factions would help break it up. Its also not clear what happened to Europe. Based on these break downs, I’d lump them in with U-R. For geographic reasons (its basically part of Asia), but also to get some white regions on the bad guys side.
Each planet gets a little write up outlining the native populations (each one has some), native fauna, the environment, and its interactions with the three main factions. The Federation, U-R, and the Yuggoth. They kind of come out of nowhere in the review, and they do a little bit in the book too. The Yuggoth are a major faction who are based on Pluto (or maybe elsewhere) and function as a scary “Other” in the setting. If you don’t want to get into ethical debates about the rights of man, and just want to blast some aliens, the Yuggoth are here to step in. They are described as being an alien faction, in body and mind. They aren’t from Earth sure, but they function based on a totally unknown set of values and morals. There are loads of references throughout to Yuggoth showing up, providing no information and doing stuff. Often times that stuff is blowing everyone up, but sometimes its not. Its never directly helpful for humans, and humans with a shoot on sight policy are totally in tone.
One thing that may confuse readers is the random love of cats throughout the book. Lovecraft loved cats, and put them into a lot of his work. Other, influenced authors did the same. In modern sci-fi, a trope is that cats can sense, and dislike aliens, and this book takes that and runs with it. Its a weird thing for sure, but it fits. In Space Madness!, cats are the physical manifestation of otherworldly entities that seem to dislike the Yuggoth, and generally like humans and the associated friendly or neutral aliens. Each alien race has a species of cat that is native, and a little different, and there are even mechanical abilities to get your own cat. Good news for cat lovers.
The mechanics take the back 2/3 of the book, thanks to charts and what not, and should be fairly familiar to the sort of TTRPG player who has found an obscure indie TTRPG like Space Madness!. Its a d6 dice pool system where 5 and 6 are hits, and shouldn’t be too surprising, Bobby Derie worked on some shadowrun books. For those that aren’t familiar, characters have attributes and skills. Attributes apply broadly to many skills, and skills are specializations. A character with a 4 in Intellect and 2 in Computing is smart, but doesn’t know much about computers. When the GM calls for a Computing check, they roll 6 (4+2) dice and count the 5 or 6’s. Then subtract any 1s, giving the number of “Hits”. the GM compares the number of Hits to the Target Number to determine success. More hits is better.
Mechanically, the game is solid. Its a tried and true system that “works”. The skill examples are really thorough and actually help to expand on the question many players ask, “What can I do?” through examples and bring us right back to that worldbuilding strength. It also includes Tags, which are a form of non-skill training. You can just do them if you have them, and they apply to things like “speaking Old Esperanto”. Some tags can be Advanced, which basically translates to “really good at”. Lastly, characters can purchase Certs, which function similar to Feats. If you meet the prerequisites, you can take them and get a cool power.
An area I’d like to see improvement on is the character generation chapter. I had to read it a few times, and am still not confident. Players select two backgrounds, which each provide some attributes, skills, and tags. The book specifically calls out the case when two backgrounds give the same tag (it becomes an advanced tag), but doesn’t mention what to do when background set skills or attributes to the same value. Attributes are given a scale of generally 1-10, with 4-5 being average. Backgrounds set your attributes to a 1 or a 2. If both of my backgrounds set a value to a 2, does it stay a 2, or go to 3? I wouldn’t have thought they stacked, if I wasn’t told a 4-5 is average and the scale is 10. The same problem occurs when selecting an order. Orders set attributes, skills, and tags. There isn’t a third tier of tag, but I’m ok to let that slide to not doing anything. That seems pretty straight forward to me, but it still doesn’t say what to do with skills and attributes. These attributes are set to 1 or 3. I’ve come up with a couple of answers for how to do it, and some give decently playable options.
- Since all attributes start at 1, you are tracking net increases. So when a background sets your score to 2, you have a net increase of 1. So if I select Belter and Cadre, which both set my courage to 2, my new stat is 3. Then when I take the Order Ordo Ares, which sets my courage to 3, I count the net increase of 2 and have a stat of 5. I min-maxed Courage in this example, and have a 5, which is slightly above average and seems a little low.
- Instead of net increases, I can treat the Belter stat increases of 1/2/2/1 as actually saying +1/+2/+2/+1. In our example above, I instead have a courage of 7 which is fairly good.
- They overlap. I can assume that these set my values to the highest value given, in this case my value of 3 from Ordo Ares.
I strongly suspect the answer is option 2, just because it gives the best stat spread for a system ranging from 1-10, and example characters have stats of 4-6 for the most part, but I can’t be positive. I could settle it all with a reach out, and I’m sure its on a forum post somewhere, but the average reader won’t be able to. This is the area I’d really like the book to have spent some time with, and its often the first chapter prospective players flip to. Shit, sometimes its the only chapter players read.
My second mechanical complaint is pretty simple. There are only 10 backgrounds, and if each player picks 2, we are probably looking at some serious overlaps. That’s fine, but it kind of limits the re-playability of the game. I’d genuinely like to see closer to 30, just to feel like I really have some choices. I’d also like to see a couple more orders. Space Madness! describes 6, but it does include rules for a build your own, to cover the collection of minor orders that exist.
In equipment, there is a section on augments, which is how you get robot arms and stuff like that. Being a streamlined shadowrun game, you can really see the elements here. That said, the execution is a lot more straight forward, and I like it a lot more. Your health is tracked in circles. Everyone has 8 circles(unless they don’t). If you have a camera eye, it changes one of those circles to a box. Now you have 7 circles and 1 box. Boxes don’t naturally heal, and have to be repaired.
Combat is different than other RPGs. Most of the time, this is a big section with all sorts of rules governing it and how it is done. We all roll initiative, and track where we are square by square, seeing which power we can use to adjust the enemy 5ft, and whether or not we can get the optimal number of foes in a blast radius. In Space Madness!, things are faster, and kind of frantic. Like the exploration portion of game, where all the players are bouncing ideas off one another until someone rolls, Space Madness! calls for all players to declare actions at the same time. The DM then describes what happens in the scene, and what the NPCs do. A side may have “the initiative” and can react or change slightly as things play out, but by and large its a plan vignette described instead of a tactical play by play. It works, and probably keeps things moving quickly.
I’ve glossed over one big aspect of the game. Wands. If you remember, that was one of the big 3 nouns used as inspiration in the creation of the game, and they take up almost 40 pages of the book. In Space Madness!, there are 5 types of cosmic forces. Azathoth Radiation, (focused on lasers and forcefields), Odic Force (life energy), Cavoritic Rays (gravity), N-Rays (thoughts), Orgone (heat and light), and Vril (teleportation and gateways). Wands are basically how all of the cosmic power is harnessed, and a wand’s function is to manipulate or change how that energy force functions. For example, spaceships function as giant wants and use Cavoritic Rays to pull themselves close to planets within a planets gravity field, but too far for combustion engine travel.
Each cosmic force has a dedicated wand type, which allows the wielder to make checks to do different functions. Basic wands are simple ray guns, blasting people with Azathoth Radiation. A level 5 Orgone wand could allow the user to use heat and light based radiation to alter trace amounts of an element into another (up or down one atomic number). An example from the book includes turning the oxygen in water info fluorine, to make hydroflouric acid.
Each force has 5 powers listed, one for each level, and spend a great deal of time encouraging clever player usage of the powers instead of writing a ton of unique powers. This is great from a space saving standpoint, and even better from an “encourage your players” standpoint. They are directly told to think about clever uses and ask “what if” instead of selecting from a list.
Looking back, its pretty impressive that an offhand bet turned into a 259 page, well formatted, playable RPG, with art. Overall, I love the book, and would love to see it shelved alongside the rules light indie darlings at my FLGS.