Today I’m going to be talking about a product that I helped to Kickstart and finally got a chance to read through in earnest. The Expanse is an amazing story that I got into through the fantastic Amazon series, then followed up that first season by reading every one of the novels. It’s an awesome series and Green Ronin has really done a great job of making it into a game. You can get The Expanse RPG Quickstart on Drivethru now but if you want to know what’s in the full product, then read on!
To start off, this is a review of The Expanse RPG but there are plenty of places to look for a review of the Modern AGE game itself. Personally, I recommend the Let’s Study Modern AGE series by Jay Anyong on “Life and Times of a Philippine Gamer” to give you an idea of how the game itself. This review will detail how this game differs from the base Modern AGE game and I’ll assume that you know the basics already.
The other thing that’s worth mentioning, just because I think it’s great, is that The Expanse was an RPG before it was a book series. As you can read here, the two authors who write collectively under the name James S.A. Corey got to know each other through a sci-fi roleplaying game that featured a rag-tag crew in a system-wide war and a hardboiled detective following the threads of a conspiracy. Combine those and you get Leviathan Wakes, the first book in the series, and the rest took off from there. The books did well enough for a TV show and the show and books collectively did well enough for a roleplaying game license. So we’ve come full circle and it’s important to remember that this setting was originally built for roleplaying, which is why I think it’s so awesome a setting for games to take place in.
Enough preamble, though. The book is exciting enough that I’m dividing my review into two parts. Today I’ll be focusing on the character-facing sections and next time it’ll be the GM’s turn. Onward!
The first step in making a character for The Expanse is coming up with a concept, just like with any Modern AGE game. You can pick an origin at this point (Martian sailor, Belter mercenary, etc) or just a general idea (hacker, inventor, etc). You then roll scores for each of your Abilities (ranging -2 to +4) and swap around. There are nine different Abilities, the same as in the base game: Accuracy, Communication, Constitution, Dexterity, Fighting, Intelligence, Perception, Strength, and Willpower.
Now, we get to the specific stuff for The Expanse. There are three different Origins that will be familiar to any Expanse series: Earthers, Belters, and Martians. Each Origin gives you a native gravity (microgravity, Earth, or low) and some different qualities like speaking Belter Creole and a certain physique. This is different from Background, something from the core Modern AGE mechanics and (in keeping with the series’ themes) mostly focused on economic class. You determine whether you’re Lower, Middle, or Upper class or an Outsider (criminal, outcast, etc).
The Social Class table is skewed by Origin so that Belters are much more likely to be Lower Class while Earthers are more likely to be Upper Class. Martians are most likely to be Middle Class and have less than a 10% chance to be Upper Class or (interestingly) Outsiders. It seems few people through the cracks in Martian society. The Backgrounds themselves, though, are the same as in the core Modern AGE book which is a little surprising. There are some contextual notes but they even have the same mechanics so you’ll have to read up in other parts of the book to develop your character’s backstory. It’s actually the same with Profession which has the same list as in the core Modern AGE book with the same mechanics.
The list of Drives is the same in both books, though there are new Talents in The Expanse and so the benefits of each Drive is different. There’s also a Quality and a Downfall for Drives in The Expanse so show the inner reserves of a character and how their hubris might get the better of them (something which is a common occurrence in the series). The stuff-buying stat is changed from Resources to Income but is otherwise the same, and ditto for the Derived Statistics which they now term Secondary Abilities. Actually, that’s not entirely true since characters in The Expanse don’t worry about Health but instead use an abstract stat of Fortune to represent their luck running thinner and thinner. More on that in Part 2, though. We then wrap up with Goals, Ties, Names, and Description for a fully-fledged Expanse character.
All in all, not so different a process from Modern AGE. When we get to the next part, though, we’ll begin to see the setting assert itself on the mechanics.
This chapter starts off with a look at Ability Focuses which, as you can imagine, remove a lot of the old-fashioned stuff found in Modern AGE. There are no listings for black powder weapons or Occultism and things are just generally slimmer here. Rather than have separate Focuses for assault rifles, longarms, pistols, shotguns, and SMGs, for example, The Expanse lists just Rifles and Pistols. Grenades are included with Throwing, Bows remains untouched, and there’s now a Gunnery Focus but still the list went from nine in the core book to five in The Expanse. Other Focuses are the same: Detexterity and Fighting lose three options; Communication and Strength lose two; Constitution and Willpower lose one; and Perception actually picks up two (Survival and Intuition). The biggest change is for Intelligence Focuses which goes from a list of 27 to a list of 15, mostly because various core book Focuses get combined to Science and Technology.
I don’t have a good reason for these reductions other than that it makes the lists a little easier to read through. I guess with a narrower focus for setting you don’t have as many things to cover and it’s not a big deal to add in some options from other AGE books for people who really want it (there’s even a sidebar).
The list of Talents is slightly different as well, with some setting-specific options. The following Talents are from the core book and are unchanged except for wording so I won’t be detailing them here: Affluent, Artistry, Attractive, Burglary, Command, Contacts, Dual Weapon Style, Expertise, Fringer (formerly Living on the Fringe), Grappling Style, Hacking, Inspire, Intrigue, Knowledge, Linguistics, Maker, Misdirection, Observation, Oratory, Overwhelm Style, Performance, Pinpoint Accuracy (formerly Pinpoint Attack), Pistol Style, Protect (formerly Protector), Quick Reflexes, Rifle Style, Scouting, Self-Defense Style, Single Weapon Style, Striking Style, Tactical Awareness, and Two-Handed Style.
In addition, though, there are a few new Talents for The Expanse. Agility is a movement-based Talent that lets you climb and run with ease while Pilot is a pretty self-explanatory option that makes you amazing at the helm. Doctor and Medic are two healing Talents which split the territory of Emergency Care into after-action and combat situations respectively. Thrown Weapon Style is a combat option for those who love grenades while Carousing is a fun Talent that lets you drink folks under the table. Improvisation and Know-It-All are interesting Talents that let you stretch your abilities into new areas and stay ahead of trouble.
After this come Specializations, the more advanced form of Talents that you can start taking at level four. In The Expanse we see a return of the core book Specializations of Academic, Agent, Executive, Gunfighter, Investigator, Martial Artist, Sniper, Socialite, and Thief. In addition, The Expanse features Ace (pilot extraordinaire), Commando (deadly soldier), Hacker (tapping really quickly on keyboard), and Star (celebrity). All four of these definitely have an immediate connection to the setting and overall I think these lists of Talents and Specializations can make some really awesome Expanse characters.
Technology & Equipment
It’s hard to go through all of these, and you certainly will be making up new stuff through your campaign. That’s why the chapter starts with a list of item Qualities and Flaws which you can use to assemble things that your players need. Each Quality you add increases the Cost by one and each Flaw decreases it by one. For specific items, there’s tons of computers from hand terminals and desktop terminals to heads-up displays and partitions, but also specific capabilities for software and notes on networks. Not a lot in the way of mechanics for these, but they should inform you how computers would feature in your campaign. That goes double for the section on communications which discusses the differences between broadcasts and tightbeams as well as the benefits on having large arrays like the ones on Tycho Station. I was hoping for a catalog-style listing for the section on drones and mechs but it’s mostly just a quick overview… oh well.
Very important for this type of game, the section on life support is very important for keeping everyone alive. Short paragraphs on environment suits, vac suits, expensive form-fitting suits, and suit accessories will let everyone speak knowledgeably about this future technology. The mechanics for tools are straightforward and just provide the means to use particular Focuses.
The list of weapons is more a list of categories that you can assemble. For instance, if you get a pistol then can add in High Capacity, Tracer, and Impressive or whatever else you want while your friend might have Light, Automatic, and Tranquilizer. I like this approach since it allows for a wide range of weapons and also gives the impression of a constantly-shifting field of items that are being invented and perfected. Really great. Armor is a little more specific but you can also customize it with Qualities and Flaws. Of note is power armor which is really amazing… you can read about it here.
A list of other items is provided including workshops, medicine, and virtual displays but they aren’t too complex and are mostly just for color. Lifestyle, however, is your ability to purchase your living situation and they paint some detailed picture on what it’s like to live as an impoverished person, Basic income, and even the Very Rich lifestyle of the systems’ Jules-Pierre Maos. There’s also, of course, a section on living above your means if you want to burn your bridges.
The next section is the Game Play section which is similar to the rules chapter from the core book. This brings me to the finish of the players’ sections, though, and brings up the point that this is a solid standalone book. I don’t recommend you buy it with the Modern AGE core book since a lot of it will be repeated (although next time we’ll see a bunch that isn’t) and The Expanse has all the really critical stuff. Once your campaign is going, you could supplement the Focuses and Talents here with some of those from the core book but if they didn’t make it to The Expanse book then there’s probably a strong reason.Bottom-line, these chapters really make it easy to envision characters from The Expanse setting and I can’t think of anything else I’d need to make a really interesting crew. Oh, except for a ship and a handful of jobs but that’s what we’ll be talking about next time. See you then!