I happened upon the preview for Mindjammer‘s new edition and was intrigued enough to secure a version of the game. The “thoughtcast” is the pdf version of the soon-to-be-released hardback, and is the second edition of the game setting, which started off as a setting for the Starblazers Adventures game that Cubicle 7 put out a few years ago. The book is almost exclusively written and edited, it looks like, by Sarah Newton, and features some decent (industry standard quality) art in the interior, with a very nice cover. According to Drive Thru RPG, this is a 99% complete version of the print copy, but I’m damned if I could find anywhere that wasn’t fully proofed (and to better standards than the typical RPG core book, I might add) and written.

On the pdf version: The only real fault I could find with the product is the lack of bookmarking. This is a massive core book, running to just under 500 pages, and could really use hyperlinks to the chapters, at the very least. Links to core concepts and rules would be a good idea, too. This isn’t typical of RPG pdf books, to be fair, but I was really spoiled by the high quality linking that Margaret Weis’ bunch did on the Marvel line and I’ve come to expect it. Otherwise, the imaging is very good, the print is pretty easy to real on my iPad, even with my now slightly farsighted eyes (hooray, LASIK!)

The rules: It’s FATE. I know I’ve got a bit of a rep, apparently, as a Fate-hater (FATEr?) but that’s not really true. Like the OGL d20 in the early aughties, I just kind of want to purchase a product that isn’t FATE at some point. (Mostly, I think it’s spoiled grapes of Fate getting into my beloved Cortex.) If you know Fate, you can play this game as soon as the download hits. In the case of this particular setting, Fate is an excellent choice, as it has a narrative flexibility thanks to the relatively rules-light mechanics to handle the wide scales that come with a trans/posthuman setting. If you don’t know Fate, there’s a lot of freebie Fate Lite rules sets floating in the wide electronic sea.

In Mindjammer, you can pretty much play anything you want. Human? Sure. Alien? Sure. Uplifted animal? (Rocket Raccoon, anyone?) Yup. Robots, sentient starships, bioroids, planetary-level computers? Yup, yeah, yes, and sure. FATE allows you a certain level of skills, and descriptive “aspects that can add to your test rolls, which you do with fate or “fudge” dice, but could easily use a d6 to handle. Fate/Fudge dice have two -, two +, and two 0 faces, so when you roll, it’s your skill plus or minus the result on the dice versus a target number from -2 to 9, usually. I suspect my ambivalence for FATE comes from this dice mechanic. (Although the negative die/positive die+skill mechanic of The Babylon Project didn’t bother me as much. I believe the term you want is “hypocrite.”)

Mindjammer uses the same character system to cover everything from a normal being to super-intelligent ships, computers, space habitats, even cultures and organizations. It’s easy, and it allows for a wide range of actions for players in a scenario — want to overthrow a culture? Your skills in manipulating it would be used to attack the Mental Stress of the culture and create complications for them or assets for you.

The setting: Mindjammer doesn’t play with the near future like Transhuman Space and to a lesser extend Eclipse Phase does. It’s placed about 12,000 years in the future, and the Human Commonality (a kind of analogue of Iain Bank’s Culture) is spreading back out into space and finding lost colonies of humans, their machines, and modified creatures that have been left to evolve their own cultures over millennia. There’s a bad guy race, the Venu — human castoffs in the Orion area; there’s sentient machines and uplifted animals that were engaged in a war and now have an uneasy alliance. There’s stranger aliens roaming space. The whole of the Commonality and some of the other powers are joined by the mindscape — a cyberspace/augmented reality that has to be regularly updated by “mindjamers” — sentient starships that ply space syncing the mindscape.

There’s a ton of background setting in this behemoth of a book, and for a newer gamemaster it could be a bit daunting to launch in an run the setting. I would suggest picking a small chunk of the setting and start small, expanding scope as you get more comfortable with the universe. Otherwise, I would consider setting it in your own chunk of the galaxy, create your own worlds and creatures and run from there, joining it to the game’s setting as you feel necessary.

Another area where the book is occasionally almost obsessive about detail is the ability to create cities, cultures, worlds, star systems, sectors, etc. from scratch — and there are tables to help you do it. If anything, Mindjammer might be worth the purchase for someone cobbling together their own sci-fi setting just for these guides alone. For an experienced GM, they’re useful, but could be overlooked if you were in a hurry to run, and/or knew what you wanted to do.

So is it worth it? The sale price for the book is $54US (about $65 after shipping) and is due in March, but you get the pdf version now. I’m assuming that you will get an update through Drive Thru or RPG Now when the main release comes and will get a finished copy, but even if you don’t, this is finish copy, so far as I can tell. It has all the rules you need; you don’t have to buy Fate Core. The setting looks to be as complete as needed, but I expect there will be supplements. Even if you didn’t use the setting, there’s enough here to craft your own sci-fi setting from classic space opera to cyberpunk, to the transhuman settings of Banks or Stross. Yes — it’s worth it.

I’m even willing to run Fate to try it out.

Style: 4.5 out of 5 — the art is average quality, but the writing is good and leads you through the book quickly. Substance: 5 out of 5 — it’s a well crafted, fun, and fully-formed sci-fi universe to play in.

UPDATE: I received the physical copy of Mindjammer about a month or so after this post. It’s a nice hardback, and all the comments about the art, layout, and writing remain the same for the product. It’s a monster, size-wise. Seriously, you could recreate a noir pulp detective torture sequence with this thing. It’s worth the price.