15 November 2019
A soft route into hard sci-fi
For a series so enamoured of the complex realities of life beyond our atmosphere, the tabletop adaption of The Expanse is a surprisingly manageable package. It’s still packed with all the hard sci-fi that fans of the books and TV series could want, but blending this with the flexible AGE system has produced something capable of capturing anyone looking to geek out in space without drowning in rules and charts. Set a few hundred years into the future, The Expanse is a rough-and ready sci-fi universe dominated by tensions and lingering conflicts spread across our own solar system. Though futuristic, the tech on display is comparatively grounded in reality – think super-effcient engines rather than warp drives, fancy guns rather than lasers – as are the conflicts you’re likely to run into while playing the RPG.
This doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty of scope for action or adventure, however. The void holds many dangers for players to stumble into and plenty of paths for a campaign to head down.
In fact, one of the greatest strengths of The Expanse is the sheer range of different genres you can explore with it. A standard campaign might set the players up as the crew of a freelance spaceship roaming the solar system, just trying to keep their
bellies full and the engines fuelled, but the ruleset could just as easily shift over to a military adventure, a tense political drama. You could even switch over to an action packed run-in with some of the setting’s more exotic elements, such as the zombie-like creatures created by an alien molecule.
While this is incredibly liberating, it does sometimes leave the book feeling a little vague when it comes to expectations. Should you lean into the sci-fi tropes and start the players off with their own ship, for example, or take a more realistic but slightly confining approach and make them part of a crew or unable to travel freely?
Once things get off the ground – possibly literally – the game is easy to manage without being simplistic. It’s comfortably midweight in terms of complexity, combining a very straightforward core mechanic with plenty of scope for players to customise their characters and pull off exciting ‘stunts’ if they roll well enough.
There’s a fairly long list of these abilities for players to pick from, ranging from a ricochet shot that tags a foe hiding behind cover to a chance to take out a ship’s engines. While this is potentially going to slow down your first few battles (or chases, or social encounters) a table will probably have their favourites nailed down within a couple hours and from then on it becomes second nature.
Even with these stunts to hand, however, combat can be a deadly affair. Rather than any abstract HP system, The Expanse keeps track of damage by eating into a character’s luck and applying conditions to them. While a single shot isn’t likely to take down an uninjured character, two or three solid hits from a decent marksman are likely to leave them in a pool of blood on the floor.
Of course, sci-fi games rarely restrict their battles to taking potshots with rifles, and a solid chunk of The Expanse is taken up with rules for ship-to-ship combat in the depths of space. This is perhaps the most involved and complex encounter you’re likely to encounter in a game, with several phases involving several members of the party each round, but it’s also incredibly tense. In all honesty it’s not a wildly deep system, but it’s one that does a pretty great job of achieving its goals.
The presentation and design of the rulebook – often something left as an afterthought in more hardcore sci-fi games – is generally impressive, as is the art. As a minor annoyance it runs afoul of a few more typos and errors than is entirely comfortable, but only a handful of these could cause actual confusion over rules.
When all this is accounted for, The Expanse is a thoroughly solid system for exploring the setting, and is flexible enough that with a bit of tweaking it could easily be modified to work with a dozen other mid-tech sci-fi universes.
RICHARD JANSEN PARKES
PLAY IT? YES
This review originally appeared in the August 2019 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.
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