This is the first time that I have ever reviewed a TTRPG based off a series of novels (and TV series) that was inspired by a TTRPG campaign originally GM’ed by the author. This is also the case of another TTRPG funded by Kickstarter, and apparently met and exceeded it’s goal within one hour! In truth, I’m not surprised as The Expanse is something special and truly noteworthy. Grab a Vac Suit, were going in!
The Expanse is a setting that sits on the crossroads of science fiction and hard sci-fi. Based off of the novels by James S.A. Corey, The Expanse takes place entirely within our own solar system some time in the early 24th Century. Space travel is common place and there are three factions that are continually at odds with one another. There is Earth (led by the United Nations), Mars (led by the Martian Congressional Republic), and the Belt (technically led by Earth or Mars, but rallying behind a group called the OPA).
Unlike many other games, the Expanse can be about a variety of topics, and can suit nearly any style. You could have everything from a space faring smugglers, police and/or military, to a political game. For a spoiler free explanation of this setting, I highly recommend the video by Alt Shift X, as it can give you a nicely presented overview of everything you need to know in under 10 minutes.
Green Ronin have laid out a solid 256 page core rulebook that covers everything you will need to run a game in the Expanse. All of the staples are here including: Game Basics, Character Creation, Character Traits, Technology & Equipment, Gameplay, & Spaceships. There is a nice section for lore including: Future History, Earth, Mars, and the Belt which can catch anyone up to speed who may be unfamiliar with the series. The last sections cover: Game Mastering, Threats, Rewards, & The Expanse Series (This includes more about the series itself and how to plot your own arc).
One of the more interesting section detail how ships operate, and cover everything from communication to travel distances (complete with charts). There is even a map of the current known solar system and the relation of certain key landmarks to one another. This is especially handy when your characters need to know what to expect if they are to send a message from Tycho Station to Mars, or travel from Pluto to Earth, etc.
AGE – The Expanse RPG uses a slightly modified version of the Modern AGE System. Simply put, characters use 3D6 (plus modifiers) exclusively to determine nearly any outcome, save for damage rolls. One die is always the stunt die and represents both a measure of success (If needed) and can generate stunt points to be used as needed. Stunt point themselves are interesting as they allow the player to push themselves with a variety of interesting effects. The more impactful the effect, generally the more stunt points are required to use it. Additionally, there are stunts for nearly every type of encounter, not just combat but also investigation and even social interactions.
It should also be noted that modifiers really make the difference in AGE. If you have a focus in something (like piloting) it gives a +2 to every roll involving that skill. Rolling 3d6 instead of 1d20 means that the rolls are going to be more consistent and less chaotic. This does not mean anything is predictable, but it does mean that every modifier becomes more significant.
SIDEBAR – I have experience with Fantasy AGE when I ran a Dragon Age a few years back. My players truly liked the mechanics and had no complaints!
Fortune – One of the features that I find most interesting is the Fortune mechanic. This pool represents both “health” and acts as a currency that the player can spend to modify rolls or even grant limited narrative control. Fortune can be chipped away in a combat scenario so players will need to balance when they should use their fortune as it could be all be lost in a single combat encounter if they are not careful! This also means that when you take an injury in the Expanse it can be serious. Without the padding of fortune to help, your character could suffer grievous injuries (called conditions). Interestingly, the game does allow for the player to sometimes choose when they drop in a fight, as sometimes it might be easier in the long run to have a player voluntarily fall in combat now as to spare them terrible conditions or death later.
Churn – Within every game of the Expanse is the Churn. It’s a ticking clock representing the creeping threat level inherit in the story. As the Churn ticks away it can add obstacles starting with something small (Like requiring tougher rolls for certain skills) eventually culminating with the introduction of larger threats. Player success is one of the main contributing factors to the churn, so that series of great rolls you are having now will only speed the clock of misfortune.
Interludes – There is an entire mechanic for down time! Space travel is slow in the Expanse and it is assumed, as in real life, that you are not constantly on some sort of adventure. There is real down time that allow for characters to make money, build things, fix ships, or recover. It’s a nice organic system that doesn’t just hand wave the time between sessions, but rather makes it a part of the game.
AGE allows for characters to be built with a variety of methods, however, the core is the same. Every character will have abilities, focuses (Specialized skills), origins (Earth, Belter or Martian), social class (Low, Middle, etc.), background, professions, drive (Motivations), income, equipment, goals, and ties. It may seem like a great deal on the surface, however the process can either be randomly determined or approved with the GMs permission. For instance, if a player wants to be a pilot there are certain backgrounds that they will have to take in order to meet the prerequisites. For someone new at this, character creation may take upwards of an hour, but for players who know what they want, that time will drop dramatically. Regardless of the method chosen for character creation, the end result will be a fully fleshed out character that feel like they truly belong in the setting.
Ships, Equipment & Income
Ships in the Expanse come in several varieties without becoming overbearing. They all make sense, and the stats are very easy to understand. Also ships can have both qualities and flaws that can make the difference in certain situations. Like your ship could have a state of the art medical facility, but could also be slow to maneuver. Some ships may not have qualities or flaws, and only certain types are equipped with weapons (that doesn’t mean you can’t illegally retrofit weapons to a ship…).
Equipment is very straight forward mechanically speaking. There are a few weapon types and they do specific damage or effect. This is not a game where you are going to find cool exotic weapons or loot, but rather all of the cool stuff and added damage is left exclusively to the stunt pool. Your gun isn’t awesome, you are the thing that makes it more awesome! With that in mind, Armor types absorb a certain amount of damage and there are tools and other useful items that characters can posses. It’s simple, easy and allows you to pick it and go!
Some items cannot be purchased like Martian marine armor (power armor), or anything military grade. In fact, basically every ship is considered too expensive for anyone to own. Income as a stat in this game represents the purchase level of a person at any time. There are certain times that a character’s income level will either temporary or permanently increase. The increase or even decrease is determined by character action. If a player purchases something beyond their means, they may loose an income level. On the flip side, if they just got paid for a big smuggling operation they may have a temporary windfall of cash. This is a fluid system and will have it’s ups and downs.
I really love this system and the setting. The world of the Expanse is both relatable and rich without becoming cumbersome. Every decision made in the Expanse feels like it has real impact. Actions have consequences, and even the smallest player-made ripple can eventually cause a tidal wave (even if they don’t mean it to). If you are looking for something new, interesting or fun give it a try!