Orbital Blues: Review

Screenshot of my PDF cover

I know I mention every now and again buying a book based on art and assuming it will be good, but truth is, I can usually guess what mechanics the game will use, and how much Ill like it, so I know the art buy is a safe guess. Orbital Blues is the exception to that. I backed this Kickstarter based purely on some art, and the concept of “Space Western RPG”. I haven’t even gotten around to reading what mechanics it uses, prior to its arrival in the mail a few days ago. A space western is a blast, and the art here is gorgeous. Why dig deeper? The folks at Soul Muppet did a great job on marketing and presentation, and that’s at least half of what gets an RPG book purchased.

The book itself feels like an art book. Nice, heavy paper, good feel to the cover, and every page is packed with art. Pictures showing the feel and mood, or just clever layout work and borders to reinforce. Mine was a hardback and a little over 200 pages. Looking at it, you’d assume it’s a dense rules heavy game, but the layout and artistic flourishes space the content out making it lean more towards a rules light. Just a rules light game, you’d put on your coffee table.

We spend a lot of time in Orbital Blues focusing on themes and ideas. Building a character that fits the setting is important, and Blues does it through evocative, and direct language, and through fantastic art (I’ll probably say it a few more times). Blues is explicitly punk in its ascetic, but I wouldn’t worry about labeling it Astropunk, Cyberpunk, Dieselpunk, or Whateverpunk. The import themes are that it’s set in a retro 1950-1989, but also after capitalism has directly failed most people. You will play an outsider, fringe, or marginalized person, fighting against the fat cats who still hold most of the wealth and power. Or maybe you keep your head down and try not to be seen. Either way, class warfare is directly front and center throughout.

Mechanically characters use a tri-stat system of Muscle, Grit, and Savvy. It’s fairly simple to start, just assign +2 to one, +1 to another and +0 to the third and you are good to go. Whereas most games have a class, job, or role, Blues asks everyone to pick a title from a big list of 50ish. Things like The Lover, The Fixer, The Survivor, The Gambler, etc. Once chosen, this tells everyone about your intended personality, but doesn’t have a mechanical impact. It does let you do a cool splash page for your PC when you draw them though. A full body shot with “The Cat” real big and your PCs name lower below it gives a very cool shot. You also get to pick out some Heart, Blues, Gambits, and Troubles, which are derived statistics from your tri-stats and some personal choices for traits that give your character some unique abilities and hooks. I’ll also throw out that for a relatively rules light system, we get a nice catalog of weapons, armor, and vehicles, and rules on how to build your own. It’s nice instead of the classic rules light 2-3 weapons I normally see. IMO this Blues sits right in a sweet spot for a lot of folks between rules that are so dense, you need to constantly reference them, and rules that are so light it’s not worth looking for them, because they won’t be there.

Just like in the player section, the storyteller portion of the book spends a lot of time on themes. It opens with three pillars about the universe, instead of building a specific setting. Humanity colonized the world, and then stagnated. Corporations are unchecked. Space is too [whatever] to police well. Similar themes to what are presented to the players early on, but this time formed from a setting design perspective. Perhaps the most evocative part for me though, is on the next page. Wood panel, crt, and lasers. This defines what and how all tech should work in the game with a few specific words. Robust, Mass-Produced, Kitsch, Function over Form, Unreliable, and Branded. Each is given definitions, but this is perfect for me to remember, and really helps when I’m trying to improvise how a sci-fi thing works in a game. After the themes and story advice, we get a lot of info on the sorts of missions you should run, with loads of example quests that are generic enough you can reuse them. For example, you could take legal work. This is broken into 3 types, Repossess, Capture, or Transport. Each gets a broad example, but then 6 specific quests. So, you pick Repossess, and then option 1 is a Vintage ship. The hook is an “Atmos Cruiser” with some fluff around it, but there is no reason repossess a spaceship can’t be reused a couple of times. It could even become what your crew does, a team of ship repo folks. We also get tons of information on Goons, Mobs, and Marks, the three categories of NPC. We get piles of examples of each, and thanks to their small stat blocks, it really is essentially a monster manual worth of enemies in a couple of pages. The same goes for vehicles. I’m back to my comment about robust equipment earlier. It brings back some of the joys of thumbing through the old Shadowrun equipment books and just thinking about the stuff, without all the math.

The book ends with a sample system for you to use, the Sutler System. While technically you don’t get a campaign setting in Orbital Blues, this is a nice add in, because you can see how all the pieces come together to build your own. Or you can just use this one, I guess. The Sutler System is robust, and I can certainly see stealing Viper’s Bar & Grill, a smoky roadside establishment and hangout of the Reno Snakes, for use in my own games if nothing else.

Orbital Blues is a game that knows what it is and builds out a unique tone and theme. The care and quality that went into the work is obvious. If you like the style, this is a must buy. If it’s not your thing? You can still get a lot of milage out of the system and mechanics included. Orbital Blues is going to the top of my “not DND Games to get the group to play” pile for sure. You can get a copy on their website or Drivethrough.

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