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Cold Space Review

Posted on August 14, 2006 by Flames


Available at RPGNow

Published by Flying Mice LLC, 2005
Written by Arthur Bailey and Clash Bowley, with Ryan A Span.
Illustrated by Clash Bowley.
183 pp. Cold War Space Faring role playing game.

Cold Space is a space faring RPG based primarily in the Cold War era of the recent past. By adjusting technology only a little, it has been possible to create a past in which space colonies, solar system exploration and exploitation of its resources are realities. And since it is set during the Cold War, narrative drive is immediately provided by the presence of a dichotomized power structure – the characters all have chance to bring down the corrupt, degenerate imperialist Yankees and their running dogs to liberate space for the peace-loving people of the world and the Communist Party which represents them so well. OK, perhaps not – presumably, most people playing Cold Space will want to be some species of blue-eyed freedom fry-loving astronaut out to frustrate the devious double-crossing of the hated enemy. Recommended characters and campaigns are provided for several stages along a possible timeline, ranging from the Korean Civil War in the early 1950s (characters may be military, medical or reporters) all the way through to the Polish Mars Colony Rebellion and its suppression, before the eventual demise of the Soviet Union (players choose from spies, assassins, military, civilian spacers and so forth).

In short, Cold Space has the benefit of a setting which promotes instantly understandable motivations for action and this should at least help players and GM alike structure a campaign and anticipate what kinds of scenarios are likely to be played out. The game is not likely to promote a richer appreciation of the reality of recent history than one of basic confrontation but, then, that is not really its purpose. My immediate response is to conceive of campaigns or characters who would subvert what seem to be the premises of the historical background but then I am nearly always an outlier when it comes to these things.

Since Cold Space attempts to be a stand alone game, it has to provide mechanism to deal with a huge range of possible circumstances, from underwater combat to flight between the asteroids. Even with the scope of 183 pages, it is frankly impossible to cover in any kind of meaningful depth even a fraction of these issues. After all, one of the main reasons why systems such as D20 have been so popular is that they have (often freely available) material to cover such a range of circumstances that new books can take for granted. In its place, Cold Space offers a range of different basic dice mechanisms to resolve unknown situations. These include the attribute check, the skills check and the profession check. The procedure is straightforward and will be instantly familiar to most players and GMs alike. A basic skill check requires a 45 on percentile dice at the +1 skill level (i.e. the skill being tested), with various modifiers depending on attributes scores, possession of relevant equipment and environmental factors. Roll under the target number and achieve success, roll over and there is failure, with results depending on the circumstances and the skill being examined. Some provisions are made for players to trade off chance of success for quality of success, which some may enjoy and others will consider ripe for exploitation.

Clearly, in fairly standard situations such as detonating bombs, piloting vehicles and breaking into orbital spaceships, then these forms of skills checks can be used to allow the game to run smoothly and in a way that enables players to envisage pretty well what is going on and how it is all working. It is less satisfactory when the GM is forced to articulate more complex or unusual situations or is generally inexperienced in running such games. Unfortunately, this is likely to afflict all GMs from time to time since a lot of the ways in which technology, society and economics works will have to be improvised. No doubt the future will bring additional adventures, modules or sourcebooks which will help to fill in these currently missing details. Cold Space, however, is hardly the first RPG to adopt this method and others have been successful in doing it.

Characters are generated in a fairly standard way and have attributes which should be more or less immediately self-evident. Scores go from low to high and high is good. Characters also acquire a variety of skills and these are conditioned largely by profession – oh God, is working for the man the principle guiding force in my life? There is even a chance to roll for a randomly-acquired personality hook for those wishing to short-circuit the whole role playing back story and personality development thing. This seems unfortunate. I have, over the last few weeks, discovered the technology of podcasting and, specifically, podcasting about games, specifically role-playing games and the message coming from pretty well all of those I have heard, is that people favour stories and story-telling over mechanics and rules and throwing dice around, no matter how enjoyable each of those activities may be. Whether this is a generally occurring feeling throughout the whole of the role-playing community I am not entirely sure. However, it does seem to be the case that the more successful games are the ones that encourage, if not require, players to conceive of fairly well detailed backgrounds for their characters which then provide structure for the ways in which that character interacts with the rest of the world and the other characters.

For a group of can-do gamers with a vision of what kind of game they wish to play and a vision of comparatively low-tech space exploration and military shenanigans, Cold Space could prove to be just the thing. There is little doubt that mounting an Apollo style mission to the planets with the added pressure of possibly coming under fire while doing so and having to hunt down assassins and villains at the other end can be a lot of fun. A cinematic style might well be the best to adopt here, although the gritty realistic style might also be successful.

John Walsh, Shinawatra International University, August 2006

Look for Flying Mice LLC eBooks at RPGNow.com.

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