Trying Out The Expanse RPG

I’ve been excited about The Expanse’s RPG kickstarter for a while now. Sometime late last year I saw mention of it, but for a while the only information I could find was a press release from Green Ronin saying it was coming August 2018 alongside Gencon. I would keep my eye on Twitter and Reddit as the excitement of The Expanse’s cancellation and new contract with Amazon came and went, but there was frustratingly little to find on the game. Finally the kickstarter launched, and blew through its funding goal within an hour. I downloaded the quickstart, and was quickly impressed with the Adventure Game Engine (AGE) mechanics, but it took a few more weeks to get it on the table and give the quickstart a go. A friend mailed me a copy of the quickstart paperback from Gencon, and we got a group together on Hangouts this Wednesday. What follows will be a combination of reflections on the mechanics themselves (at least how I understand them from the parsed-down basics), the scenario Cupbearers, as well as help filling in the minor details and holes that cropped up teaching and playing the game in a “here, learn from my mistakes” kind of explanation.

** The following contain plenty of spoilers for the quickstart adventure, Cupbearers **

Ganymede (before any station construction) NASA/JPL.

Getting to know the characters

I’ve not played any of the other AGE RPGs, but I loved how simple this was to pick up and teach. 3d6 + ability score + focus bonus if you have it— give me the total and the value of the drama die. Easy and done. After the second or third test, almost everybody knew what they were doing and where on the character sheet they were looking. We played with four of the pre-generated PCs, and they got going pretty quickly. It was very helpful to have the focuses and abilities defined and explained on the character sheet— no need to flip back and forth between the character sheet and rules when everyone is still getting their feet under them. The first version of the quickstart did have a number of typos on the character sheets and NPC stat blocks, but many of those were fixed in version 1.2 of the PDF, which is what is linked from the Kickstarter/Green Ronin. Unfortunately version 1.0 is what made it to print, so I had to doctor my rule book when it first arrived. Most of the errors were in the calculated attack bonus and damage rolls, the rest were minor spelling or formatting typos. The few I’ve caught that are still in the 1.2 PDF Are:

  • Izzy’s pistol attack bonus should be +3, not +2 (accuracy)
  • Ade’s pistol damage should be 2d6 +3 (perception)
  • Pinkwater Security’s speed should not be 0 (I assumed 11, like the Tough or Wendell)
  • Orn’s unarmed damage should be 1d6+2 (Like Casey, he has the Striking Style talent)

Wait, where is that explained?

There were also a few features or conditioned that were not well explained in the course of the rules or the adventure. The trap on page 18 points you to the Conditions section (p 7) to learn what “Exhausted” means, but that’s not actually listed as a possible condition— instead it’s in the explanation of Wounded: “their Speed halved and [are] unable to take the Run action”.

There are also two pieces of the NPC stats blocks that bear no explanation in the rest of the document: penetrating damage (Pinkwater Security + Wendell), and Wendell’s Pinpoint Accuracy talent. Fortunately, the  community that has grown up around this Kickstarter already had my back. Posting to the Facebook group for help, I got the following from someone with the Modern AGE rules on hand:

Penetrating damage ignores most armor and comes from special weapons, hazards, and abilities, such as raging open flames or the Called Shot stunt. Very few things reduce penetrating damage. Page 39.

Page 61 Modern Age. Pinpoint Attack

Requirements: Accuracy or Fighting 1 or higher, and Dexterity 1 or higher If you can see it, you can hit it. Hard.
Novice: You can strike where it hurts the most. Once per round, you can add 1d6 to the damage of a successful attack if your Dexterity is greater than your target’s.

Other than that, the rest was pretty much the learning curve of running a brand-new system with brand-new players all around— there were bound to be mistakes on all sides.

Mistakes on all Sides

When we got into combat for the first time, I think I was forgetting pieces a lot more than the players were. I was happy to see little of the Analysis Paralysis I’d seen in first-time D&D players facing a pair of dead horses and a couple of goblins with short bows for the first time. A short list of major and minor actions and as much description as you can muster for flavor. The first time around I often forgot the NPC’s minor actions on their turns— if they weren’t moving they would take a shot, but I’d forget to let them aim and get the +1 bonus. I also forgot to use the injured/wounded rolls— when they ran out of hit points fortune, they dropped. Oops! So all that to say, things went fairly well for the players their first combat round. I also could or should have played the NPCs a bit smarter— in the final fight they should have given up Kai after their leader went down (per the scenario description, and common sense), but I had the last two toughs keep firing.

It also took me a few tests and checks to get better about using the drama die to explain their “success level” and how easily they accomplished their various tasks. I was surprised how often doubles actually came up during the game. I haven’t really done the math on the probability of rolling any set of doubles across 3d6 but after a bit of play, it’s clearly lower than I thought. The stunts are a great mechanic, and I hope/expect there are more options that come with the full rules, or perhaps come into play at higher levels.

Another mechanic that got a little rocky for us (or at least me) was shifting the attitudes of the NPCs towards the characters. The rules and suggestions in the book are fairly straightforward, but it was really the first real moment of gameplay for us, and I’m not sure I explained particularly well what they were supposed to do or how interacting with the people in the brothel really worked mechanically. All the same, they won over a bartender soon enough and got the introduction they needed. Next time, I would probably be more explicit in asking whats expected of them, especially with new players, since this is literally the first place they end up after arrival.

Advanced Tests and the Locked Room

One of my favorite mechanics in Expanse AGE is the “advanced test”, skills checks across multiple rounds to reach a running total. Since my first reading of the rules I’ve already been thinking about how to run something like that in D&D (my brother and I already had a lengthy Telegram conversation about it). In practice, I was actually surprised and a little disappointing in how it went. It was over quickly— I can’t fault them for rolling well, they noticed the dropping oxygen quickly, got two successes on their technology rolls, with a 5 and a 6 on the drama dice. I was considering that on another pass I’d probably bump the running total up a bit, but things could just as easily go badly for the group with the dice landing slightly differently.

The part I found more frustrating was that I didn’t have much else for anyone else to do— Each test takes one minute out of the five they have before they’re in a vacuum, and only one character performs the check. I played around with an “assist” mechanic, but I never really settled on anything I liked well enough that I put into play— If Naomi is trying to hack a computer system, the last thing she would want is Prax elbowing in and trying  to help Two Idiots One Keyboard with her. There needed to be a cost, or at least a danger, alongside the benefit of someone helping. I kept the rest of the team involved and asked what they were doing elsewhere in the room, and one of their alternative solutions might have gotten them somewhere (or bought time) if the hacking player had failed or taken more time, but it ultimately ended up not mattering.

The scenario I see this option really shining is someone trying to do something mid-combat— The rest of the party holding off waves of security over a series of rounds while one person tries to hack the communications array and get tight-beam message out.

But… Why?

The players never actually talked to Orn Aquilo directly about Kai, instead opting to make a bit of money selling the location of the stolen luxury goods in exchange for some good old-fashioned cash.

I’ve no idea what did or didn’t get pieced together on their end without all the pieces, but they never really got a straight answer about why Kai was fleeing Ganymede or why Moneta had him in the first place (other than Orn told them he thought she was going to ransom something “particularly valuable” of his. When they DID get to Kai and he found out the crew was taking him back to Titan, he tried to book it out of there, at which point Casey knocked him out and fireman-carried him to the ship in a good old-fashioned black bag kidnapping.

Clearly they got enough story (and had fun with it), but I’m sometimes left with the feeling that I’ll leave players more confused than they probably actually are.

So I’m Injured, Now What?

This fortunately never came up, but it’s a likely one— how can we help an injured Player Character? The rules tell us First Aid can be used to stabilize a dying character, but offers nothing on healing an injury or wound. Can these only be helped with proper treatment in a medical bay? Is there any sort of battlefield medicine option to help? We already don’t have hit points, instead just our fortune, so anybody with an injury or wound is clearly already in dire straits. I assume we’ll have to wait for the rest of the rulebook to figure this out.

Misc: Open-Ended Thoughts and Questions I’m Looking Forward To Getting Answers to

  • Do Stunt Die stack if they take the Lighting Attack stunt and roll doubles again?  Do they get to take another round of stunts immediately? Could that include a second Lighting Attack, or are they disqualified from stunts they’ve taken this turn?
  • How else is fortune used? Clearly there are options other than “avoid damage”, but none are detailed in the quickstart. I tried to implement a “luck roll” kind of mechanic using an over/under based on the PCs fortune, a la Call of Cthulhu,  but it wasn’t particularly well thought out. I assume there will be an option to use fortune to succeed when a test would otherwise fail.
  • When circumstances, player choices, or just particularly good roleplaying call for a + or – on a test, is it better to give the bonus to the player to calculate with, or adjust the Target Number behind the scenes? I used a mix of both, and will likely continue to do so, I’d just love to hear opinions.
  • How does leveling up and interlude time work? Would they have hit “level two” after a scenario like this?
  • Assuming this merry band of misfits comes together again, what can they do with decently large sum of cash they scored from Orn? They already had their ship paid off per their agreement with Daddy Dardanus. Perhaps a minor upgrade to one of their ship’s systems? A (very) nice coffee machine in the galley?
  • I didn’t use any of the mechanics Green Ronin has been teasing out during the Kickstarter (although I think The Churn is the only one really applicable/usable with the quickstart at the moment), but I’m really looking forward to the ship combat released today and the various Interlude/Downtime options to fill time between chapters and scenarios.