Review: The Stars are Fire

Who doesn’t love the cinematic tension and feel of a good space battle?

Science Fiction. I’ve loved it since I was a child. From the Robotech cartoon, to original Battletech from FASA with the cardboard stand-ups. From Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s game to (much later) the Honor Harrington saga by David Webb. From Wing Commander the game (an awesome one, by the way) to the awful debacle that was the Wing Commander movie (and the decent books in between). I have had a fascination with space, and the potential of what could be. Of what could happen if we escape this earth, and hopefully our preconceived notions with it.

Expanding on the 10 pages of content and advice in the Revised Cypher System Rulebook (pages 270 – 279), The Stars are Fire clocks in at 224 pages. The first of the supplemental, genre-based sourcebooks to be released from the Your Best Game Ever Kickstarter (the others are/will be Stay Alive, We Are All Mad Here, and Godforsaken), The Stars are Fire, written by fellow science fiction fan Bruce Cordell, attempts to take on the genre from the standpoint of a toolbox to help Cypher System GM’s run their games and make them both feel like science fiction and be fun in the Cypher paradigm.

The production quality of the book is everything I’ve come to expect from Monte Cook Games’ offerings: Excellent binding and materials, fantastic and thematic artwork for inspiration, and crisp layout.


Content

The Stars are Fire opens right up with a list of potential Science Fiction adventure seeds. I actually really like this approach. If I’m going to buy a book that is meant to be used a toolbox, I don’t want it beating around the bush. Get in and get me the tools. Very much in the vein of the other toolbox book that I know and love, Ultimate Toolbox by AEG which almost immediately jumps into the gobs of tables that it offers, The Stars are Fire almost immediately tries to offer useful tidbits. From my perspective, it is very much appreciated. As a long-time gamer, I don’t usually look at the role-playing examples as anything other fluff for amusement value, but the one he includes about dealing with “reality” in-game, starting on page 9, is really on point for me, and a powerful example of how to make a game feel “real” while still “keeping it Cypher” (simple).

Chapter 4 is 9 pages dealing with the various sub-genres of science fiction and giving some examples of each. As someone who at times struggles remembering my options, I like that Bruce was so exhaustive here. Also, helpfully, he added not only types, but examples of shows/books/movies in that sub-genre, plus potential setting examples to get one started. I am extremely grateful for that as such things tend to get my brain thinking about possibilities faster than a simple abstract explanation. Chapter 5 introduces a Random Conflict Table that is almost like the adventure seeds in the first chapter of the book. Personally, I’m for anything that gives me more ideas to riff off of.

Chapter 6 starts into some more of the “toolbox” concept with set pieces and optional rules to make your science fiction “harder”. One of the real gems for me here is the section starting on page 33 entitled “Quick Description for Common Sci-Fi Situations”. Basically, Bruce takes some common things that tend to happen in science fiction movies and stories and discusses in brief how it would actually look and what it might actually feel like. This is actually an incredibly useful thing for both new GMs and GMs who may not have read, watched, or run Science Fiction games widely. It allows the game to feel more real without a whole bunch of research or deep scientific knowledge required on their part. It makes the genre more accessible, and as someone who wants to play more science fiction Cypher games, I need it to be more accessible. Another useful piece in this chapter is the inclusion of possible GM Intrusions that can be used with each of the set pieces. As someone who at times struggles to come up with “relevant” GMIs, I find myself appreciating this as well.

Chapter 7 surrounds Science Fiction equipment. I’ll talk more about this section in a bit. Chapter 8 discusses Vehicles and Spacecraft in the context of broad brush-stroke time periods. While there is some more detailed flavor text here discussing technology (like Spacecraft power and drives starting on page 103), much of this section seems to be designed to give a GM broad ideas to gain specifics only in their individual game headspaces. If you are looking for Vehicular Combat rules, they can be found in the Revised Cypher System Rulebook starting on page 230. In my head, this works for spacecraft only because in reality, the kinds most people are interested in are SO expensive, that an individual is not going to be able to acquire them, so the only specifics really needed are the ones directly applicable to the role-playing session itself. Contrasting this with the Numenera crafting rules, where you can literally build a city or community piece by piece – the necessity for fine detail, even if we’re talking about things that are technologically fantastic and beyond our reach, is greater. In keeping with most of Monte Cook Games’ offerings, Chapter 9 contains a list of Creatures and NPCs suitable for science fiction games laid out in the standard format.

Sections 2 of this book offers a playable science fiction setting called The Revel. The Revel is set in our own solar system and is full of detail and places for PC’s to explore. It provides seven chapters of history, locations, corporations and other power organizations, and even some mystery, at least if you want to find out what happened to Earth. Section 3 offers suggestions for starting a campaign in the Revel, a full adventure called Salvage over Saturn (which has been run at quite a few conventions now with, I have been told, a lot of success) and two Cypher Short adventures. For those not familiar with the Cypher Short format, take a look at Monte Cook Games’ free supplement on the subject.


Critique

I like The Stars are Fire.  I like it a lot.  But there are, indeed, some things I’d probably change if I’m honest with myself.  Or rather, there are some things that were not included that I would probably include.  I agree with Bruce in that science fiction is one of the more difficult genres to pull off well in role-playing. Partly because it’s intimidating because of the “science” part of science fiction, and partly because starting from a frame of reference is not as easy. One of the ways to avoid this is to do what Bruce did with the Revel and set it in our solar system. Most of us have had at least a passing exposure to celestial astronomy in school, focused on our nearest neighbors. So if we talk about “Saturn”, you know more or less where it is relative to Earth.

If, however, you do want to include things like alien species in your game, and you don’t want to use the idea that they came to us because of how awesome we are as humans, you have to assume that we went to them. That implies that you as the GM need to understand where we went and what was there. The Stars are Fire really doesn’t have much help to offer you in that respect, and that is the first change I would have made. Perhaps not to be exhaustive in offering suggestions of potential planets or species or such things, but to offer advice to the GM on how to think about and plan to do such a campaign without getting overwhelmed. In other words, how to do it in the “Cypher way”.

For more detailed treatments, one could look at what is probably still the Cadillac of the genre, Traveller, for inspiration. In fact, there’s so much “official” data out there for the Traveller game, you could probably just steal some of it, change it slightly, and not one of your players would know. The Traveller map is a great resource for that. There is another free generator that I have used as well that is paired to Stars Without Number from Sine Nomine Publishing, called Sectors Without Number.

The second main sticking point for me has to do with equipment. I have personally never been a fan of systems that extremely abstracted the concept of money (examples of this that I personally have played include the World of Darkness games and Conspiracy X by Eden Studios). While I understand intellectually that the game flow and pacing may not be served by “haggling” mechanics or “shopping” scenes, and that’s fine – honest, what I have noticed is that in many “adventuring” stories, whether they are set in space or in some other genre, the characters want to get paid. This is partly because they have to “live” and that level of abstraction is fine (see Shadowrun’s “lifestyle” mechanic for example), but mostly, it’s because they want to be able to acquire that new shiny toy. A car, a bike, a plane, a gun (artifact)… In order to make that a part of the game, you actually need to assign finite relative values to things.

Numenera another Monte Cook Game involves the use of Shins (or Shinies) and lists actual costs in shins in the equipment section. For different scale equivalents, there is Io. In another game, Invisible Sun, there are orbs, and for a different medium, Mage coins. The equipment lists there too contain actual costs. What does this do? It makes money as a reward meaningful in negotiation. In other words, it allows you, as a GM to set up adventures with reward that is a measurable currency and control more finely the ability of your players to purchased items of more advanced level (and therefore cost).

Obviously you could manage this other ways, but in a consumer society like much of the world, this seems to feel easier to wrap ones head around as a player. I don’t know that one needs to go as far as detailing how to set up currency exchanges between galactic empires or territories (though I’d certainly not turn down advice there for… reasons), but at least some generic relative quantities (call them “credits” – GMs can adapt that later) gives a GM some basic numbers to throw at their players with relatively little preparation. Like with everything else in Cypher, false precision here can be a trap, so there is a line to walk. But I think that at least something would have been a valuable addition with little extra work.

The last thing is more of a suggestion than a critique. I talked about how the Revel was an “easier” setting for people to get into because it was “known space”. One of the reasons people like Traveller, or Star Trek (or other science fiction properties that deal with deep space) is the thrill of the alien, the unknown. It might be nice to do a summary of the thought process that needs to go into building a campaign setting like that. From the mapping to the creation of the alien(s) to the technology, to how to shoehorn humans in there (if that’s your thing). It could even be done in the vein of the Numenera glimmers (a PDF of 8-10 pages). This would not be an actual setting. It would be a thought pattern/process that one could follow to generate such a setting with some thought examples. I understand that Chapter 3 outlines creating a science fiction setting. I don’t think it goes far enough, personally. But maybe this one’s just me.


Summary

I’ve been a fan of Bruce Cordell for a very long time. The Sunless Citadel (there is a 3rd Edition and a 5th Edition version of the adventure) is still one of, if not my top pick for best published adventure of all time. The Stars are Fire is a fantastic supplement from a fantastic author and great guy for GM’s who want to start looking into putting together a Cypher game in one of the many science fiction sub-genres. As a bonus, the guys from Cypher Unlimited got an interview with him where they talk about it and other things as well. Happy gaming!

  • Josh Walles

3 thoughts on “Review: The Stars are Fire

  1. I think the review is quite accurate. You’ve pointed out the many things it does well, particularly when it gives out real examples for us.

    Interestingly, your critique mostly matches mine. I appreciate your callout of Stars Without Number. I was using its tables to generate sectors before I got into CS; I also use some stuff from Ennead Games. For missions, I wound up pulling tables from the new Alien RPG. I’m also not a fan of the abstract currency system.

    One other area I wish was different is vehicle and ships. I would’ve preferred they took the combat system we already use and applied it with assets/hindrances depending on equipment, tech level, etc. That said, I appreciate the one they designed; it works well, but just wasn’t what I envisioned.

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    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it! Science Fiction is one of my favorite genres for a lot of reasons. I loved that they put out the toolbox books, specifically this one, to help more people access something so near and dear to my heart. Happy gaming!

      – Josh

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