18 May 2020
Can an entire game be carried by just one idea? Well, if that idea is as compelling, creative and exciting as Nibiru’s memory-building the answer might well be a “yes”.
On a very broad level the game’s a sci-fi adventure that’s a little bogged down with beautiful but star-dense lore, but that description misses out the coolest part of the entire game. Where most RPGs ask you to start off adventures with a solid idea of your character already pinned down to the sheet, Nibiru instead sends you out into the world with something close to a blank slate.
You start as a vagabond somewhere in the steel hallways of a vast, planet-sized space station. You have with no stats, no gear and, most importantly, no memories.
As the game plays out you get the chance to add to these memories and use them to completely shape and re-shape your character on the fly. If you’re pinned down in a firefight you might invoke a hazy recollection an afternoon nailing cans with a BB gun, for example, allowing you to instantly pop one foe in the head and gain a permanent bonus to shooting.
Similarly, you might be climbing a dangling rope and suddenly think about how cool it would be if your rough-and-tumble brawler, long-plagued by the memories of dead AI servants, had a horrible memory of falling into the void somewhere in a past life. You’d fail the roll and incur an ongoing penalty to climbing checks, but taking on the negative memory gives you more points to spend on happy ones elsewhere.
The possibilities that the system offers are damn-near endless, though they do require a fair bit of friendly give-and-take between players and GMs if everything’s going to work smoothly. None of the categories you can invoke memories for – what would be called skills in most games – are nailed down and the advice in the rulebook is a little hazy. It would be easy for players to try and break the game with over-broad categories – “talking” or “fighting”, say – but it’s also annoying to sink valuable memory points into playing the harp and then never have them come up.
Despite this, the MEMO system – as it’s labelled in the rulebook – is a truly fascinating little idea and the shining, sparkling heart of the game. Honestly, it can be easy to spend so much time thinking about the possibilities of playing around with memories that you almost forget about the rest of the game. That would be a shame, however, because Nibiru is a fascinating, imaginative and thoroughly weird place to play. The lore behind the vast space-station takes up almost half of the core rulebook’s 200-ish pages, going into incredible detail about the social inequalities that plague its society and weird creatures that lurk in its depths.
Wonderfully, there’s even a chapter contributed by a genuine astrophysicist brought in as a consultant. This deals with explanations of some of the game’s more science-ey elements, such as the surprisingly involved system for tracking artificial gravity levels as the party travels, and is a fascinating read. The downside to the beautiful, complex nature of the world is that the endless chapters devoted to explaining it are dense as all hell and stuffed to the gills with a complicated new lexicon to memorise. Unless you have a better memory than most, you’re going to be constantly bouncing back to the glossary to remind yourself who the Ensu and Silu are, and why the Umbra is so different from the Antumbra.
You can probably ignore many of the details as you play, as the game’s set-up virtually demands that the heroes are a little shady on the world’s details and even the GM only really needs the specifics of the area they’re currently adventuring in. However, the sheer volume of densely-written material to absorb can be pretty damn intimidating, especially if your players are the kind who like to get invested in the world they’re exploring.
Honestly, Nibiru sometimes feels like a game that could have benefitted from a bit of a trim and some polishing. Most of the ideas are top-notch and the MEMO system is an absolute gem, but the book as a whole is a little rough around the edges.
If you’re a fan of the truly fascinating, however, this shouldn’t stop you from checking the game out and making some memories of your own.
PLAY IT? Probably.
Incredibly intriguing ideas tied to some beautiful – if dense – lore makes for one of the most interesting games of recent years.
TRY THIS IF YOU LIKED… THINGS FROM THE FLOOD
If you enjoy moody sci-ﬁ and the storytelling side of RPGs, Nibiru is going to be right up your alley
Designer: Federico E. Sohns
This review originally appeared in the February 2020 issue 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.
Sometimes we may include links to online retailers, from which we might receive a commission if you make a purchase. Affiliate links do not influence editorial coverage and will only be used when covering relevant products