Mindjammer Thoughtcast Edition – Initial Impressions

Since I’m being pushed from three different directions to look at running a SF game—not so much pushed as suggested, since I gravitate in that direction anyways—I bit the bullet and bought the new Mindjammer Revised Edition. It’s more of a preorder, since the physical book doesn’t ship until April 9th (per the site), but I did get a copy of the Thoughtcast Edition .pdf, a kind of beta edition, to hold me over. I’m waiting to see the finished product—the .pdf implies it’s getting some polishing, more art and whatnot—but here’s some first thoughts for those considering it.

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Let’s step back to Circa 2010 for a moment, to Cubicle 7’s Starblazer Adventures and the original Mindjammer. Starblazer took the Spirit of the Century SRD and applied it to space opera, via the British Starblazer Adventures comic book dating back to the ’70s/’80s. It had oodles of new rules and built on a lot of post-SotC development: it was the first Fate game with the new Consequences system, plot stress, the Fate Fractal, and many other mechanics we now take for granted. Mindjammer was Starblazer Adventures’ first (and, to date) only sourcebook, a 160-page gem which depicted a far-future transhumanist space opera setting.

Starblazer was the big honking toolkit—in Fate Core parlance, a “book full of dials”—you could use to build any pulpy space opera game you wanted; it went pretty crazy with the Fractal and had rules for aliens, mutations, starships, robots and death machines, galactic empires, you name it. Mindjammer was a stylish setting with some new rules and a nifty short campaign. Judging by the Thoughtcast Edition .pdf, the revised Mindjammer combines the two: it’s both stylish toolkit and big honking setting.

And I mean all of that in the most positive way possible; I have a huge soft spot for Starblazer since it was the first Fate game I ran, and, being a phone book sized behemoth, is my go-to example on why Fate is not a rules-light game. (It just runs like one.) It’s also interesting to look back and see how the game has evolved: instead of Maneuvers, Declarations, and Assessments, we have Create Advantage; those stonking great stress tracks, long lists of Aspects, and piles of Fate points were pruned long ago.

The new Mindjammer is powered by Fate Core, and it reflects every inch of new design progress Fate has gone through in the last four years. It’s not just rolling both Starblazer and Mindjammer into one book, it expands both setting and rules; the mechanics and numerous dials are also a little less generic toolkit-y, supporting the feel and flow of the Mindjammer universe. Many of the Starblazer elements powered by the Fractal have been updated, expanded, and included, so the Thoughtcast Edition has rules to build anything from organizations to planets to starships (sentient or not) to entire cultures.

Generating a planet or stellar body, for example, has several dozen pages of random charts and details for the GM to play with: I’m in the process of rolling up a sample solar system, and to be honest it was a bit of a slog jumping across the .pdf at first. (Most of it was my fault since I was trying to watch Cosmos at the time, and was doing it all on my laggy old Nexus 7.) And once I knew my way around, was using the planetary character sheets, and remembered the correct chart to multiply things like orbit on, I got planet creation down to around 15 minutes. It’s a bit complex, but there’s a lot of thought and some excellent theory behind it, and I could see buying the book just to use those chapters in any other SF game.

Mindjammer goes heavier on the crunch and rules than many Fate Core supplements, and less strict in its application of Core’s rules: the sample stunts have a wider diversity than “You gain +2 to using [skill] when using [one of the four actions];” the different species and cultures have much more tangible rules effects than the original’s “gain one stunt and choose one of these Aspects.” I can appreciate a bit more crunch in my Fate, since I can amp it up or dial it back down as needed, so I see that as a good thing. You can also see a lot of similar design work at play in Sarah Newton’s Burn Shift setting, in the Worlds On Fire book. Hazards are a good example; there’s a good selection of those in the new Mindjammer, ranging from asteroid fields to earthquakes.

Setting has also been expanded by a wide margin. The original Mindjammer setting felt like a thin synopsis of a deep campaign idea; while its “broad strokes” let each GM expand and manipulate elements easier, the Thoughtcast Edition gives a better sense of the world (though it’s still made clear you can hack and mod it to fit the style you want). It’s a good mix of SF influences, most heavily leaning towards post-cyberpunk and transhumanism, though managing to make those fit with the sensawunda and cinematic action you get from a rip-roaring space opera. It reminds me a lot of the ’80s revitalization of space opera (C.J. Cherryh, David Brin, Vernor Vinge, Dan Simmons, etc.), with elements of Traveller’s merchant princes, Star Wars‘ sense of wonder and rich alien life, and the kind of interstellar intrigue and diplomacy that Star Trek does so well. A lot of disparate elements that work well together.

As for details… Humanity has undergone an age of strife and turmoil, conquering death only to fall victim to boredom (more of a crushing ennui, but still). Having conquered FTL travel to find the universe is rich in resources, cultures, and sapient life, a reinvigorated humanity sets forth to explore, fight, negotiate, and trade among the stars. There are aliens out there. Humanity has developed sentient AIs and uplifted animals. Lost remnants of old earth colonizes are ready for rediscovery. And then there’s the growing threat of the Venu—an off-shoot of humanity lost long enough to have developed their own techno-religious society, who sees the Commonality’s developments (i.e. mutability of form and trans-humanism) as sins against the body.

Commonality space, circa 193 New Commonality Era.

Again, Mindjammer Revised is going more for tone and style than it is pure setting, and so it’s easy enough to replace the Commonality Era and its far-future transhumanism with something else. Granted, that’s kind of like buying a Supers RPG and using it to run gritty low-power cyberpunk, hence why I’d like to point out the sheer overload of rules, dials, and subsystems packed into this book. It’s also a standalone Fate game and has re-iterated a big chunk of the Fate Core SRD in Mindjammer terms, so this one big book can cover your entire campaign mechanically. I do miss the canned adventures from the original Mindjammer, but for all I know they’re lurking in the Thoughtcast Edition and I just haven’t found them yet.

What we have is a book that’s got a much lower page count (496) than the original Starblazer and Mindjammer combined (632 + 160), yet somehow manages to pack in more material. The Thoughtcast Edition is similar to the originals, but different enough that I can justify the $54.95 preorder price for both 8.5″ x 11″ hardcover and Thoughtcast Edition .pdf. (You can’t purchase them individually yet, and the core book is not yet in distribution.) The art is no longer recycled from the Starblazer Adventures comic, and the new art is slick; the new layout is top-notch, especially the borders and sidebar boxes, and the cover is stunning.  I’ve enjoyed reading it and seeing the depth of the changes, and I’m impressed by how similar but improved it is to the earlier edition. Two thumbs way, way up. I can’t wait to see how (or if) the physical book improved on the Thoughtcast Edition beta.

Compared to the original edition, Mindjammer Revised is a superior product at a more affordable price, though as with any RPG revision it’s a sleeker version of rules I already own. If you liked the original editions and wished for, say, more history of the Commonality setting or greatly expanded rules for planet generation, I’d say it’s a worthwhile upgrade. If you prefer the changes to Fate seen in Dresden, Fate Core, and Sarah Newton’s Burn Shift in Fate Worlds, the revised Mindjammer should be high on your list. If those changes left you cold, stick by your guns. Similarly, it’s a return to the old phone book-sized Fate supplements, crunchier Fate, and standalone Fate games as opposed to just supplementing Fate Core, which are attractive to me but not every other gamer out there.

Meanwhile, if you missed out on Starblazer but want an amazingly flexible Fate SF toolkit plus an excellent setting, given Starblazer’s higher-than-sticker-price cost I’d recommend the revised Mindjammer in a heartbeat. Drive-ThruRPG is having a $5 close-out sale on the .pdfs since the license expires 31 March 2014, so act fast if you want those. Otherwise, keep an eye on the new and improved Mindjammer.


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