Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A Review of Shatterzone

Another in an occasional series of reviews of older games...

Shatterzone was a product of West End Games. I'm still not sure why at the height of their Star Wars d6 line they felt that it was a good idea to come out with another sci-fi RPG using completely different mechanics, but they did. There was a fair amount of press in the gaming magazines when it was released but I never played it or knew anyone who played it locally. Mechanically it was similar to Torg which I kind of liked so a few years ago I got a copy of SZ complete with cards. Having a bit of a sci-fi itch lately I decided to dust it off and look through it.

When the occasional outbreak of edition wars and old school vs. new school erupts into online warfare I like to think back to those simpler times when all gamers got along and everything was cool even if you didn't personally play it... oh wait. Here's a scan from 1993's Shatterzone Player's Guide:

Keep in mind that is the top of page 3, the first page of game text in the book! Second paragraph of the game and we're already slamming other games and declaring "what is fun". I will also point out that despite the talk of creating a life story there is no mechanical system for this in the box - no lifepath system as in Traveller, Star Trek, or Cyberpunk, all of which had been out for several years when this was released. In fact, starting players are encouraged to use a prebuilt character template (similar to the Star Wars d6 templates or Shadowrun archetypes) from the back of the book, which seems to go against this stated approach. The whole create a life story thing boils down to think about where your character came from and pick skills and abilities that reflect that

Dave's character pays the price for angering the DM
This kind of stuff used to drive me crazy. For a fairly rules-heavy game to state this position right up front, then provide no mechanical support for it is just ridiculous. You do have Advantages and Compensations which are exactly what they sound like and are just like GURPS and Hero and various other games have had before, not some brilliant new innovation that changes the face of RPG's to favor detailed backgrounds and ushers in a golden age of role-playing. Nope, they're just advantages and disadvantages like we had seen for 10 years plus at that point.

Plus, look at that picture. That's the cover of the Player's Guide. If I'm going to spend all of that time working up a background and history for my character I don't want him getting blown in half in my first session. Don't think that's anomalous either - there are a ton of pictures like that inside the books too. Characters getting shot or stabbed or blown up is a common theme. I think the illustrations are actually more violent than in the first 3 editions of Shadowrun, which seems like of an odd choice to me.

Anyway, so how's the game? Well, there is a point allocation system for building your own character once the template options have been exhausted. A starting character has stats that range from 5 to 13 with an average of 7 or 8, which seems a little odd. The stats are Agility, Dexterity, Endurance, Strength, Intellect, Mind, Confidence, and Charisma. Some of those distinctions seem a little fine to me but I could work with them for the right game. Skills are based on a stat and rated in "adds" as in "Streetwise" is a Confidence skill, so 1 add in Streetwise for a character with a Confidence of 9 would mean Streetwise = 10. It's a fairly simple system and I like it. There are some specialization rules that allow higher skill for a narrower focus, but it's nothing unmanageable. Beyond that there are the advantages and complications mentioned earlier that go beyond raw numbers and cover everything from good luck to enemies to being older or younger than normal.

How does task resolution work? It's interesting. The base roll is 2d10 which is then compared to a "Bonus Chart" which gives a result that is then added to the relevant stat or skill. The chart is below and with an 8-12 giving a range from -1 to +1 you can see that most of the time skill checks are going to come out around the skill level with only small variations. Now the dice explode on a 10, and there are points a PC can burn to roll again, and there's a card mechanic that can come into play as well so it is possible to get some ridiculous rolls but most of them should be pretty close to the base ability. This is interestingly close to FATE (or Icons, the game I see and like the most that uses that similar mechanic). The problem I see here is that tasks are typically given a difficulty number and to succeed the character must meet or exceed this number. Looking at the templates most skills run from 8-12 with a max of 14 for 1 or 2 skills per character.  The GM's guide says a DC of 9 is Average while a 12 is Difficult. My personal standard for these kinds of things is that most player characters should be able to pull off "difficult" rolls without straining on anything they are even sort of good at. This setup falls right at the end of that scale, so I would want to monitor it closely in play, because few things are more frustrating in an RPG than assuming that "Skill Level X" in a game means you are good at that skill, then finding out in play that no, you're really not all that good. It's even worse when you discover that a starting character can't even be all that good = the only way to get there is with a whole lot of play. I think that this game is right on the borderline, but the other mechanics - there is a level of success mechanic - might mitigate this to some degree.

I still think that 1d minus 1d is easier
Measurements in the game use a scaling value chart similar to DC Heroes and Torg (a sister game to Shatterzone). Every increase of 5 in the value is a tenfold increase in the measure. So if a weight of "5" = 10 pounds then a weight of "10" = 100 pounds. There's a conversion factor so these measures can be feet, pounds, miles, days - pretty much anything. This is a mechanic I've never been totally comfortable with and while I could see the usefulness of it in a superhero game I'm not sure it's really needed in a sci-fi game. It does work, but it's one more layer of abstraction or gaminess laid on top of the mechanics.

The biggest mechanical difference between Shatterzone and most games is the Action Deck. This is a deck of 100 or so custom cards that have a multitude of uses within the game. Combat begins when the GM turns over a card which indicates the initiative order. Players are given a number of cards at the beginning of the game and can use them during a session to take various actions. They can be traded in for Life Points (the SZ version of Action points or Fate points or Force points). They can make certain actions easier or more difficult during a given scene or round. There are also subplot cards which can be used by a player to generate a subplot like a romantic interest or the return of an old enemy to enhance the current adventure. There are 15 pages of rules on using the deck in the game so it's not a simple add-on that can be ignored like those new 4th edition D&D cards. This is an inherent part of the system and is probably one of the things that makes SZ actually worth playing by giving it a different feel from many other RPG's.

I'm not kidding...
Going beyond mechanics the background of the game is interesting if not especially unusual. This is a distant-future game with energy weapons and powered armor and FTL starships. There is an interstellar government, a space navy (the Fleet), megacorps, colony worlds, some alien races, and the Shatterzone. The zone is a sort of weird area of space where things don't really follow the normal rules, somewhere between a really big asteroid field and the Eye of Terror from Warhammer 40,000. There appears to be some kind of alien menace lurking on the other side of the zone but the base set does not reveal many details about them.

So what kind of campaign would someone run with this game? Well it's hard to say. There's not a ton of guidance in this area in the box. I suspect that the Traveller standard of "Merchants and Mercenaries" would work here. There is a fairly detailed personal combat system, personal interaction system, and there is a space combat system and a ship construction system too so one could run merchant and military adventures pretty easily I think. A campaign similar to Star Trek or Babylon 5 with characters who are part of the fleet could have some possibilities as well. The Shatterzone is clearly intended to be a focus of play but as dangerous as it's supposed to be I'm not sure too many PC's are going to be anxious to fly a ship they own into it and risk all of the bad things that could happen there.  It only gets 6 pages in the universe guide and I was a little disappointed with that - it's the name of the game after all! How about we spend some time on it in some detail?

Now the question: is a relatively low profile sci-fi game from 1993 worth playing today? I have a somewhat backwards answer to that. I don't think the universe alone as portrayed in the basic set is worth converting to another system. I don't see anything compelling enough about it to pull out Savage Worlds or Star Hero or Traveller and say "we're playing with the Shatterzone background for this campaign" and that's typically what I would do with an older game - drop the clunky unfamiliar mechanics and use a system we already know to have fun in a cool universe. In this specific case I think the mechanics have enough flavor that I think they are the attraction rather than the background for the game. If someone decided to learn the mechanics well enough to play and run a game efficiently, I think it's worth considering changing the background to something else. There's nothing wrong with the SZ background and that's probably where I would start but it might really shine for say a Babylon 5 campaign or something like a Stargate game (you could no doubt steal some stuff from Torg to help with that too).

Not safe on a ship either...

The game's biggest attraction is also it's biggest disadvantage: all of those unique mechanics. The stat/skill resolution is different from most other games and relies on a chart. The Value/Measure system is different (and uses a chart). The cards add a whole separate mechanical subsystem. It's a big bundle of unfamiliar mechanics that don't really overlap with any other game but Torg. If we look at "system families" in RPG's there are the old school D&D type games, d20 games, the Basic Role Playing family, Hero, GURPS, FATE, Savage Worlds, White Wolf, d6 system, and others. This one doesn't really cross over with any of those and the one other game it's related to was never all that popular either so there's not a big pool of players and not a ton of online support. I know this went on to become the "Masterbook" system in the waning days of West End Games but I also know you can still find plenty of Masterbook in any discount bin in the country - not exactly a testament to its popularity.

How could this game fail?
In the end I probably won't be doing anything with it myself. When it comes to Science Fiction RPG universes I have Star Trek and Star Wars to play already. For rolling my own I have Traveller and Savage Worlds and GURPS and Star Hero. For old-school fun I have Stars Without Number which I only recently discovered. The SZ universe isn't compelling enough to drag me into it, and learning yet another set of mechanics is not the thrill that it once was, especially heavier mechanics as SZ uses. So it will likely gather dust on a garage shelf for a few years until something clicks for it in my head, somebody new comes around that wants to run it on a schedule that's convenient, or I decide it's not worth the space and clear it out in a purge as the pragmatist overcomes the collector. It was an interesting run-through so I don't regret spending the time with it.  It's just not screaming "play me!" at this point the way some other games do.


Adam Dickstein said...

I'll like your review better than the one I wrote up some time ago but never posted. Let's see I have it here somewhere...oh yeah...here it is. I'll read it to you.

"This game sucks."

Not as in depth as it could've been I'll grant you that but much more to the point.

This is a gimmick game. A one trick pony idea. The Shatterzone is best used as a 1-3 adventure story arc in your Star Wars game. The fact that WEG made the Star Wars game and then made this, definitely forecasted the direction the company would be heading soon after.

Terrible waste of paper.

Blacksteel said...

That's pretty strong coming from you Bark. That said I'm not sure I think the background is even worth that much attention.

As far as WEG I still can't fathom why, having the much-loved d6 system, they would have any interest in publishing a different sci-fi game using a completely different system. Ah well, game companies have made a lot of stupid decisions over the years.

Jeff Rients said...

"As far as WEG I still can't fathom why, having the much-loved d6 system, they would have any interest in publishing a different sci-fi game using a completely different system."

It was a dumping ground for stuff that was written (and thus paid for) but that didn't make it through the Lucas approval process. The game was literally built on the SWRPG's castoffs.

Blacksteel said...

I had heard that "rejected Star Wars material" thing but it still seems like the mechanical conversion would take some effort. I suppose that does fit with the "grimmer and grittier" style of the game. I'm not sure if that's something you promote (Do things you cannot do in Star Wars!) or something you try to conceal. Either way the game does lack some focus and that's a pretty good indication as to why.

XOXO said...

Well, D6 came after Masterbook & Shatterzone. As fot the SW castoffs, that' s what appealed to me. I could run it with my Torg group (yes, it's very popular where I come from!)

Blacksteel said...

? - d6 Star Wars came out in 1987 so I'm going to disagree with you there.

Havard: said...

I am just coming back to this game now after having so much fun with it back in the 1990s. While the game could have used the D6 rules, TORG was extremely popular back then and this was probably one reason why they used this engine. Another was likely that it was unclear whether Lucas Arts would allow WEG to publish another sci fi game with the same rules as Star Wars without risking the lisence.

While I agree that the system is somewhat clunky, character generation was never a problem. We just grabbed the templates in the back and modified them when needed. The Life Points and Card Mechanics makes the game extremely cinematic which we loved. Perfect for Aliens/Event Horizon type games.

Unknown said...

I got confused. WEG's original "D6" system registers to me as WEG's "Star Wars" system. After Torg, Masterbook, WEG retooled it to be it's official ("D6") system, again. Does that make sense?

Ivor Cogdell said...

Thanks for the review gang, It is now to be found as a reprint in Drive through RPG if anybody wants to get it.