08 April 2021
There has long been a strange assumption that roleplaying games need to be behemoths with inch-thick rulebooks and functionally infinite gameplay to be considered worthy of your attention, but the first salvo in Rebellion’s new Adventure Presents… series turns all these assumptions on their heads.
At a glance, you would be forgiven for thinking that Tartarus Gate was simply a particularly splashy magazine or a slim supplement for some grander title. Crack it open, however, and you’ll find absolutely everything you need to run a short, sweet campaign of sci-fi horror from two of the UK’s hottest RPG designers.
And this really does mean everything. Within its pages you’ll find the entire ruleset, a stack of maps and handouts, a half-dozen character sheets and a rather beautifully illustrated adventure, all neatly sorted and ready to play. Each of these is stapled into the same booklet, so retrieving them without any tearing relies on how good you were at pulling posters out of teenage magazines, but once you’re done the only thing you’re missing is a handful of six-sided dice, and even those can probably be pinched from a battered set of Monopoly.
Once everything is out the game is remarkably easy to play. The rules are slick and simple, with just four ability scores that are applied to pretty much every situation you might run into and no special abilities outside of easily explained gear. While this could easily have led to most of the player characters feeling rather similar to each other, the pre-generated adventurers are all given a unique spin thanks to their snappy backstories and well-written motivations.
Actually, calling the characters of Tartarus Gate ‘adventurers’ is probably rather inaccurate. The entire premise of the mini-campaign, which should take around three decent nights of gaming to chew through, is that the stars of the story are poorly paid interns serving out a short gig as maintenance workers aboard a corporate starship. Naturally, however, things don’t work out quite as they might have hoped, and before too long the entire team is dragged into a gruesome tale of digital ghosts, dehumanisation and everything else that makes the sci-fi future an unsettling prospect.
If that all sounds rather complicated, you needn’t worry too much. At its heart, the entire campaign is essentially a lengthy dungeon-crawl, complete with a final show-down in the villain’s lair, draped in rather elaborate set-dressing. The comparative simplicity of the structure helps to cut down on the pressure felt by the person running the game, while the snippets of open-ended exploration in each chapter help to keep things from feeling too linear.
The writing throughout the entire product is stunningly creative and deeply disturbing by turns, with a rather deliberate aesthetic and an incredibly strong authorial voice ringing through on every page. If you’ve played any games or adventures penned by Grant Howitt or Chris Taylor before, such as Spire or Heart, you’ll instantly spot the duo’s writing style and favourite topics (eye-watering body horror chief among them) running through the adventure. For those that enjoy a little bit of lyricism and style mixed into their roleplaying games this is a delight, though if you like your adventures to read closer to a technical manual you may find some of the stylistic flourishes a shade self-indulgent.
Really, though, Tartarus Gate is a hit. It achieves some fast-paced sci-fi nastiness that should get your table rolling away within just minutes of cracking open the booklet and is a pretty solid example of just what the Adventure Presents… series is aiming for.
If there’s a question hanging over the success of the product – and, for that matter, the entire series – it’s probably one of value. Much like the depressingly consumerist single-magazine pistols sitting its cargo hold, Tartarus Gate is an inherently disposable product. There are no rules for making new characters, nor are there any guidelines for taking your game and expanding it to new places and spaces. The whole thing is designed to be one-and-done.
While some may baulk at the prospect of an RPG product offering anything short of infinite entertainment, though, it’s hard to look at the £10 price-point and the 10-ish hours of gameplay you’ll find in Tartarus Gate and come out thinking that you’re getting anything close to a bad deal.
No, it won’t keep your table occupied until the 2030s roll around, but if you want a few nights of solid entertainment and creative roleplaying the Adventure Presents… series seems to have you covered.
PLAY IT? YES
A true pick-up-and-play RPG
If you loved the gloomy horrors of Spire, you’ll love Tartarus Gate
This feature originally appeared in Issue 54 of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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