Extracted from InQuest, Issue 30, October 1997

Game Reviews [ONDECK]

Blue Planet

“Blue Planet is a landmark release, the first really original science-fiction RPG since Paranoia.”

AD 2078: Investigating an anomoly at the edge of the Solar System, the Prometheus II probe discovers a traversable “wormhole” (space warp) that leads to the Lambda Serpentis system, 35 light-years from Earth. Ten years later, the United Nations establishes a small frontier colony of genetically engineered humans and “genlifted” cetaceans on the system’s habitable ocean world, Poseidon. Earth’s civilization promptly collapses for over a century, but the abandoned colony thrives. Now it’s 2199, and Earth’s resurgent government(s) and Incorporate States have returned to Poseidon in a gold rush for the life-prolonging xenosilicate Long John. There’s a world to explore, an amazing ecology to study or plunder, criminals to catch – and the original pioneers are rebelling. Meanwhile, deep in Poseidon’s endless ocean, mysterious “aborigines” pursue unknowable goals of their own ….

Think of an underwater Dune, of SF novels like Jack Vance’s The Blue World, David Brin’s Startide Rising or Arthur Clarke’s Songs of Distant Earth, and you have Blue Planet, an exceedingly well-drawn setting full of clear and believable conflicts. Take your hydrofoil out from the touristed boomtown of Haven or the Nomad raft-village. You’ll soon find a Judge Dredd-like GEO Marshal hunting Russian sunburst smugglers, or Sierra Nueva revolutionaries (led by orca warchiefs) sabotaging Atlas Materials’ Undersea Habitat 2, or a self-sustaining Force 6 cyclone, or a greater white (a 75-meter eel with a voracious appetite). Pirates, flesh merchants, wired Incorporate mercs, aquaform natives – they all coexist fractiously on Poseidon.

And it all makes beautiful sense. The tech, oceanography, geology; the ecology, in all its DNA-based unlikelyhood; even the wormhole all get plausible scientific rationales. Blue Planet does not offer a “Star Wars” space opera, nor even Traveller’s planet-hopping, but the bracingly austere rigor of “hard” SF. The mammoth rulebook includes Shadowrun-style cyberware and biotech, a good range of vehicles and weapons, rules for playing natives, dolphins and orcas, and Solar System background for “Newcomer” immigrants.

During character generation, your species determines base percentile scores for 14 attributes, 40 profession templates draw on 99 skills in 23 skill groups, with scores modified by attributes. The system doesn’t attempt to balance characters – a GEO shock trooper has more skills than a Haven archaeologist, period – but it creates well-rounded personalities. [Editor’s note: there are actually 40 profession templates drawn on 100 skills]

Percentile skill checks determine eight levels of success or failure; an elegant “scaling” system modifies these levels by task difficulty. The unexciting but workable combat system uses half-second rounds, initiative rolls, hit locations, and scaling modifiers. Lethal trauma rules and Role-master-style critical hits carry realism perhaps too far, but it’s easy to slot out the system and import your own rules.

Biohazard’s Blue Planet is a landmark release, the first really original science-fiction RPG since Paranoia. Sure, in hard-SF roleplaying we’ve seen GDW’s 2300 AD (it sold about a dozen copies) and several GURPS worldbooks (“sorry, I wasn’t yawning”), but Poseidon presents far more flavor and excitement. A couple of times it stumbles in its extrapolation: paper money? Computers barely advanced beyond today’s? But Blue Planet is a must-buy-now for every fan of hard SF, because it delivers big on two commodities scarcer than Long John: scientific integrity and fierce intelligence. In this field, they’re long overdue.

the box

BLUE PLANET

Release: July 1997

Suggested Retail: $27.95

THE GOOD

* Flat out, the best “hard” (scientifically accurate) SF RPG ever published.

* Attractive and imaginative setting, well written, comprehensively described and ripe for a dozen different campaigns.

* Included rules are okay; setting adapts easily to any SF RPG game.

* Play a killer whale.

THE BAD

* Steep learning curve; no easy way to kick-start new players.

* Combat gives realistic (i.e., excessively deadly) results.

* The planet’s blue, but the pages are way gray. We want more art!

THE UGLY

* Weak binding, inadequate proofreading.

* Not for the scientifically illiterate.

* What, no artificial intelligences?