Today, we’re going to take a look at one of the more impressive books that we have on our shelves. It’s no secret that Joann and I love science fiction. It was where we first turned our eyes to when we started writing material of our own for the larger roleplaying community. We love the way that it, as a genre, allows so easily for one to “dream big” and even to “get weird” without it breaking immersion in the game or in the story. Not only that, there’s so many games out there that do it well: Traveller, Stars Without Number, Mechwarrior, and plenty of others.
Published by Mindjammer Press and distributed by Mōdiphiϋs Entertainment, Mindjammer is the brainchild of Sarah Newton. It is a sweeping space opera that spends its time focusing on the question: What does it mean to be human? First and foremost, Mindjammer is a setting, one that can and has been adapted to multiple game systems depending on what one wants to play. This review is covering the one we have, which is Mindjammer adapted for FATE Core by Evil Hat Productions. There is also a version that has been adapted for Traveller Second Edition by Mongoose Publishing.
Manufacturing and Production
Mindjammer (FATE Edition) is a hefty book. Weighing in at 502 pages, the book is a quality product. With well-bound pages, the Mindjammer hardcover is beautiful, and the pictures are well drawn and fitting for the theme. The text is easily readable and the entire book is neatly organized. They have even included a ribbon bookmark. Not strictly necessary, but it is a touch that I enjoy that says “we care about making this a premium product” and I enjoy when publishers do things like that. The only negative that I can see and that’s more on the printer’s side, the binding at the spine (the connection between the page bundles and the hardcover wrap) is a little looser than I like which means that it needs to be handled a little more carefully.
Now, onto the game. Mindjammer is a setting of lost worlds, hyper-advanced technology and clashing civilizations. It’s a game with a focus on a detailed yet open world/galaxy. The first thing that impressed me about this book was the statement on the back cover. “A complete standalone roleplaying game – this book is all you need to play.” Often, when games say this, it is not entirely true. They try, but the final product feels like you need further explanation in places. Sarah Newton, however, has brought the FATE Core rules in beautifully, adapting all of her setting material, tables, rules, options, and such to that system with explanations, sidebars, and advice a-plenty. It is, by far, the single best setting-to-system adaptation that I have ever come across. Now, I am not trying to suggest that the game is not complex. It takes FATE and turns the detail up to an 11, specifying out options and things you can be, do, and buy and the rules for such. But I love that the book itself is self-contained. Truly self-contained. And for that alone, I would recommend this book as a study in how to adapt a setting to an open-sourced (Creative Commons) system.
After the introduction, the book gives you a brief, 7 page primer on the FATE system and how it will interface with Mindjammer. But instead of stopping there, the next 458 pages dive deep, looking at every aspect of the game from creating characters (including races and backgrounds and occupations and example aspects and rules for them), to playing the game, to running the game, to in-universe game pieces like equipment, or corporations and other organizations, to setting (both already created set-pieces and tools to build your own), and the relevant history of the known universe. Through all of it are tie-ins to the rules so that you can easily incorporate each new “thing” into your own game.
At the end of the book are character sheets, and various creation sheets (for things like a sector of space or a culture, or a ship) to help you focus your creation of new things in the setting on the key points that will be relevant in-game. These are elegantly designed and thematic. There are reference sheets with page references that briefly prompt the player to remember the salient points of different, commonly used rules in the system. There is a glossary and an extensive index. And I didn’t even mention the maps. The stellar cartography in this book is absolutely beautiful (both the galaxy and the individual planetary maps), at once useful and very thematic for a science fiction game.
This book is amazing, and I’m sure that if it were all I played, this would not be the critique I had. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to like my games mechanically simpler. Generic options that can be repeated ad nauseum to get more specific (such as skills or gear). Learn a handful of things and repeat. Mindjammer is so rich and so full of ideas, but each of those (for the most part) carries some mechanical tie that I think I would personally find it difficult to keep straight what I could and couldn’t do or be. I don’t mean that Sarah fails to explain things. She has done a fantastic job of clarity and detail. I mean that the number of options are overwhelming.
It reminds me very much of Rifts and the sheer number of sourcebooks you could get to “enhance” or “add on” to your experience. Keeping track of what is “possible” and how it would tie into the greater narrative seems like it would be a challenge. It’s strange, I’m normally the one advocating for more, but this time, I think I would actually advocate for less. Simplify it down some more and narrow the options a bit to keep it streamlined and focused. Don’t sacrifice the interesting narrative beats that the things you choose to keep have. The flavor of the setting and the choices is just fine. There are, in my opinion, simply too many. Obviously this is just my opinion and preference. And I honestly don’t want to detract from how remarkable I find this book. But the reader needs to understand that while FATE and Mindjammer are not profoundly complicated, this book is remarkably dense and you are going to have to spend quite a bit of effort processing all of your options. That does not even include the sourcebooks that have been released since then.
Mindjammer, FATE Edition, is a space opera roleplaying game that focuses on transhumanism and interstellar politics in the context of the question: What does it mean to be human? Sarah Newton has done an amazing job incorporating the FATE Core ruleset from Evil Hat Productions and skinning the pieces of her setting and the things that you will find there in that context in a seamless way. The Mindjammer rulebook is, truly, all you will need to play, though if you want to dive deeper, there are other sourcebooks available to enrich the universe and your play options. For my part, I personally recommend this at a minimum to designers who are looking to take an open ruleset (FATE, D&D or Pathfinder SRD, etc…) and skin it with their own setting to release. Sarah Newton has provided, as far as I’m concerned, as perfect of an example of how to do so as exists in the market. If you enjoy science fiction, this is likely a good buy for you as well, if not to play, then certainly for inspiration for your own games. Happy gaming!
- Josh Walles