System Roundtable: Beyond Earth

Hello and welcome to another of our system roundtables! We’re going to be talking today about Civilization: Beyond Earth, the latest science-fiction installment in the Civilization series. I played Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri as a kid and loved it so I’ve been enjoying this as a stress reliever recently. It got me thinking that this setting is really interesting and would be a fun place to set an RPG. But what system to use?

Before we get to what our panel says, there are a few elements that I thought I’d go over. Basically, Beyond Earth is the successor to the regular Civilization games (it came right after Civ Vso a lot of the gameplay is similar but that’s neither here nor there). It’s not a terribly bright future as people have had to flee the Earth in droves following the “Great Mistake” and you are some of the first people to land on this strange new world. There are alien creatures with a sort of hive mind that you have to contend with, and three different social directions you can take your civilization. The five different victory conditions give ready-made plots for a roleplaying game and the various factions are all groups that are rife for worldbuilding.

Alright, without further ado, here are our panel’s thoughts.

Beyond Earth - Flooded Pyramids
Image © Firaxis Games

 

Heart-Bright

The games that Heart-Bright prefers usually include storytelling and crazy stunts. She likes a lot of crunch as well and the opportunity to include some flair in the narrative.

There’s no need to invent the wheel here. If you want a science-fiction RPG with lethality, transhuman technologies, and powerful factions then you already have one: Infinity. In this game you will find cybernetics, weapons of all sorts, robots, vehicles, and alien creatures. All the ingredients you need for a Beyond Earth campaign. Best yet, it’s a game that embraces the 4X mindset of the RTS game since there are several different conflict systems in Infinity.

Warfare and Infowar together are the usual combat-focused sort of conflict (the exterminate part of 4X) through physical combat and digital hacking. But there’s also Psywar which is another front to engage on, social memetics and psychological warfare that is more along the lines of expand part of 4X. If an RPG version of Beyond Earth is just murder-hobos with cybernetics then you’re missing the point. Psywar lets you have PCs on missions to break down a border colony and convince it to join your faction.

 

Beyond Earth - Domination
Image © Firaxis Games

The adversaries chapter gives you lots of different alien options and if you really want to emulate some of the sights from the game you can borrow mass combat rules from Conan or Star Trek Adventures. Mostly, though, you want to create a compelling world for your players to get involved in. The 2d20 system helps with that using Focuses (which can be the game’s technologies, aliens, resources, or affinities) and Zones (which lets you create the landforms, miasma, and other landscape effects). There are even rules for creating new adversaries and abilities for you to apply to them and make them interesting.

Akhenanubis

The half-jackal Akhenanubis is a cartographer and bookkeeper in and out of gaming. Give him a sandbox campaign and he’ll find each and every corner of it.

Turning an RTS game into a roleplaying experience means lots of sandbox-style elements. I’m in. There are lots of different games you could use for something like this but I think the one that gives you the most tools right out of the box is Uncharted Worlds. This sci-fi PbtA game is full of interesting tech, useful archetypes, and worldbuilding tools. The Careers and Origins (which combine to give you playbooks) are even perfect-sounding for a Beyond Earth campaign: Academic, Clandestine, Military, Technocrat, Colonist, Productive, Regimented… It’s all there. Things get especially good when you include the supplement Far Beyond Humanity, which has a handy system for adding cybernetic and biotech mods to your character. Plus the narrative structure of the system allows you to focus less on what stats a crazy alien has and focus more on what living in this rapidly changing world would be like.

Beyond Earth - Landscape by runolite
Image from runolit on DeviantArt

The only thing missing from Uncharted Worlds is the big social changes that we see in Beyond Earth (there are faction rules for debts and favors but not rules for how those factions interact). You can just have that be part of the story of the game, but if you want some mechanics for it then borrow the Families from Legacy: Life Among the Ruins (you can use the first edition instead if you prefer). In this game there are Families that vie for control of a post-apocalyptic world, not quite what we’re trying to make here but close enough. Like characters, the Families have playbooks, custom moves, and mechanics of interaction that can be used for the factions from Beyond Earth. Better yet, if you can swing it, Generation Ship is an alternate setting rules expansion that takes Legacy into space, exactly what we need. There aren’t many rules expansions in here but the families have moves that are right at home in Beyond Earth.

Whichever version of Families you use, they use Family-only stats (Reach, Grasp, and Sleight which is covert stuff) and three resource tracks which map directly onto the mechanics of Beyond EarthMood is similar to Happiness in the game, Tech is like the technology web, and Data is your Science output. There’s even a section in the book for building wonders for crying out loud! You don’t need to actually do any mapping from one to the other but it’s nice when things line up. You can add other resource tracks for Purity, Harmony, and Supremacy (the game’s three affinities). You can use a version of the Power Up move which benefits rolls but flavor it for these three social directions, or just make up your own moves for each one. Either way, the cool units, interesting buildings, and alien resources all become resources that “Families” can have a surplus of or a need for and you’ve got your background to the campaign.

Beyond Earth - Affinities
Image © Firaxis Games

Black Marion

Marion usually focuses on the community in games and around the table and loves more interaction between players. She often asks “why should I care” in a game where the setting hasn’t been well-established.

I don’t have a game suggestion for Beyond Earth, I have system suggestion that involves melding two(ish) different games that share a system. The first is Coriolis, the fantastic space opera from Fria Ligan. This game has a ton of the stuff we already need to play in this world including a mix of social and physical conflict skills, advanced weapons, resource management, and plenty of background that’s right at home in Sid Meier’s future world if you want to fill out some of the factions from Beyond Earth. There’s even a small bestiary with aliens that can map to the raptor bugs and sea dragons from the game.

Beyond Earth - Invasion
Image © Firaxis Games

However, Coriolis has an assumption that your characters are flying around in a spaceship doing various missions. Beyond Earth only deals with space in the form of orbital satellites and you can switch that up if you like, but to capture the feel of the game we want outposts and trade routes and stuff. That’s where Mutant: Year Zero comes in. Also by Fria Ligan and using the same system (more or less) MYZ focuses on PCs in a strange landscape trying to build up their enclave. That’s much more what we want.

GMs can work with players to create a Zone around the group’s landing site and then place their first outpost in that area. They create important figures (the “Bosses”) in the first city, and establish “development levels” to get started. In Beyond Earth you do the same thing by picking what strengths your faction has coming off the colony ship that brought them to this planet, then you explore the area and build up your new colonies. If you don’t want to start at the moment of landing, just spot the characters some more points and place a few different colonies instead of just the one (probably place some rival factions’ cities too).

To simulate faction dynamics you can (optionally) include the Insurgency rules from the MYZ standalone supplement Genlab Alpha. In this game you are planning characters who are trying to rise up against unknown “watchers” and this system can easily be hacked to lead to one of the victory conditions from the game: rallying various factions together to create a Mind Flower or an Emancipation Gate, for instance. Characters can do their part in advancing humanity forward, shaping the future they want and seeing it come to fruition.

Beyond Earth - Emancipation Gate
Image © Firaxis Games

Vasqueth

Vasqueth is a power-gamer and proud of it. He likes combat-heavy games that are gritty and deadly, and he’s not afraid of his PCs meeting grisly deaths.

When you’re headed into the transhuman near-future, there’s really only one answer: Eclipse Phase. Soon to be in its second edition, this fantastic game has all the body modification, hacking, technology, and aliens you need. You’ll never get the top-down feel of Beyond Earth in an RPG, it’s just the setting that you’re playing in. Instead you can play those individuals trying to navigate all the various forces to prevent humanity from blowing itself up.

The morphs and implants of Eclipse Phase allow you to build any of the units found in the game from the alien-hybrid marauder to the cybernetic CARVR. The TITAN creations provide all the alien lifeforms you need and weapons are easily modified to reflect what’s in the game. The only thing that’s really missing is rules for faction-level conflict but if you wanted mass combat and settlement-building you should just play Beyond Earth! An RPG experience is about the individual so the game should focus on there as well. Aside from making some Factions and Backgrounds appropriate to the Beyond Earth setting, there’s really no modifications needed so you can play almost right out of the gate!

Beyond Earth - Harmony
Image © Firaxis Games
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