Review: The Expanse RPG
When you crack open a licensed RPG you generally expect a solid adaptation of the setting, a few flavourful rules quirks that’s about it. When it comes to The Expanse RPG, however, you also get a system that blends plausible sci-fi with a smooth-playing ruleset that doesn’t need an astrophysics degree to pilot.
If you haven’t delved into them yet, the novels and TV series that make up The Expanse’s back-catalogue look a few hundred years into our own future, at a point where space travel is commonplace but humanity remains confined to our own solar system. It’s a mishmash of a few dozen different sci-fi tropes, but one that somehow manage to feel grounded somewhere in reality.
This isn’t a universe stuffed with strangely humanoid aliens or casual interstellar travel, for example, and though it falls a little short of the technical rigor demanded by truly hard sci-fi the tech is mostly shrouded in the trappings of actual science. There are no handwaved warp drives or force fields to make things easy, and before setting off into the void brave star captains need to work out exactly how fast they can accelerate without squishing their passengers to death with the g-force.
This all helps to keep the RPG firmly grounded in traditional sci-fi without making the leap into Star Wars-esque science-fantasy. When a battle erupts in The Expanse you’re probably exchanging rifle fire with pirates or brawling with some back-alley thugs, not charging into the fray against blue-skinned aliens armed with laser swords and pseudo-magical powers.
More than this, it also keeps the conflicts thoroughly human in nature. There are plenty of wonders at work within the solar system, but the mysteries they hide are rooted in politics, greed or petty-minded stupidity rather than shadowy cosmic forces. Solving them involves getting your hands dirty, making hard decisions and taking risky choices, not simply charging into combat and trusting to fate.
This carefully measured blend of very human heroism and measured realism bleeds over into the ruleset that governs the world of The Expanse. Based on Green Ronin’s AGE system, the core mechanics are built on an incredibly simple foundation where every test, whether it involves firing a pistol or trying to charm your way into a party, is resolved by rolling 3D6 and adding an ability score to it. A fairly simple task might require a total result of 10, while something truly challenging might require you to get 15 or higher.
The lack of fiddly maths and stats to track helps to keep things flowing nicely – which is useful, as while the basics of The Expanse may be simple there’s plenty of ways for players to tweak the game as they go along. There’s a huge number of talents and skills to pick from as characters grow, all of which being new effects that can generally be as simple of as complex as you like.
On top of this, players get plenty of opportunities to add little bits of crunch on the fly by activating ‘Stunts’. These are bonus moves players get to tack on to tests when they roll doubles on their dice (this sounds stingy, but in practice it works out to about one roll in three) that offer an incredible range of effects. In combat you could make a blow deal extra damage, for example, while a super-successful stunt during a break-in could allow you to perfectly frame a rival for the job.
While there aren’t too many stunts that are particularly complex on their own, however, the sheer amount of options – you might have as many as 30 stunts to pick from during combat – can drag down the pace to a crawl until folks get a handle on their favourite choices.
Once this initial setting in period is done with, though, the stunts begin to play an incredible role in spicing up action scenes. Not only do they add to the tactical options available in combat or even negotiations, many of them force players to narrate their actions with a little more flair – explaining exactly how they pull off that cool ricochet shot or kick that armoured soldier on his butt, rather than just reeling off raw numbers.
Spanning the Void
Of course, not every conflict in the world of The Expanse is restricted to the scale of individual heroes. It wouldn’t be a planet-hopping sci-fi series without a chance to shoot enormous guns at spaceships, and this is where the game makes some of its most interesting decisions.
Where conventional combat is fast-paced and frenetic, ship-to-ship battles are stately affairs that play out over minutes rather than seconds. Every vessel in the fight acts at the same time, as captains hand out orders and decide on any stunts for their subordinates to use while pilots dodge and weave enemy attacks and gunners line up railguns or fire torpedoes.
There’s a measured pace to proceedings and as shots flicker back and forth across the void the tension grows. Having a character take a bullet during a firefight is bad enough but having the team’s ship take a pounding has serious consequences for the entire campaign. Sitting in the captain’s chair, barking orders about taking out the enemy’s sensors or burning closer so you can blast them with point-defence guns is a genuinely wonderful roleplaying experience.
The downside of all this, of course, is that not everyone gets to play the captain. Unless the team has somehow acquired their own fleet even the busiest of battles is only really going to focus on a handful of crew members, while everyone else watches on and hopes they aren’t going to be breathing vacuum anytime soon.
Perhaps it balances out all the times the hacker or sniper took centre-stage while the pilot sat at the back and sprayed covering fire, though, and perhaps this is simply counted among the price The Expanse pays for its tinge of realism. It wouldn’t make sense within the fiction for every team member to be lining up shots over hundreds of kilometres, and if that means having them semi-idle for a couple of minutes, so be it.
That final thing – the hint of reality, of solid science buried beneath the wild adventure – is what helps to elevate The Expanse from the crowd. The corebook is stuffed to the gills with information on travel times between planets, how many gees of acceleration a human can handle and what kind of communication is possible across the vastness of space.
Make no mistake, this is not a realistic, simulationist game. Instead, it’s a game that gives a sense of playing in a hard-ish sci-fi universe without requiring you to constantly look up charts, navigate lengthy complicated rolls or memorise dozens of niche rules for every possible outcome.
This is, perhaps, why it’s a little irritating that this kind of falls away as characters level up.
At the start of a campaign every combat feels dangerous. You have enough fortune points – a rough equivalent of hit points in more traditional RPGs, representing heroic luck rather than raw toughness – to take one or two blasts of pistol fire and escape with a few scratches, but anything beyond that and it’s lights out.
After a few adventures your stats will climb to the point where you’re genuinely exceptional, but still pretty much human. This is probably where the game shines the brightest, with players happy with the world and their characters feeling like the main cast of a novel.
As the levels pile up, however, things begin to get a little silly. Maxed-out characters can waltz through firing squads without even messing up their hair and flex physical and mental abilities that are genuinely superhuman. This is likely just a consequence of the AGE system, whose genesis lies in more traditional D&D-style games where over-powered heroes are baked into the setting, but in a world that takes pains to stay reasonably grounded, it doesn’t sit quite right.
The mere fact that the biggest flaw I have with the system is one that takes months of gameplay to surface (and probably isn’t a problem for many people) should probably be an endorsement of The Expanse RPG. It’s a smart game that gives a slick sci-fi experience without veering into the realms of fantasy-with-laser-beams or leaning too heavily on the complex, rules-hungry aspects of the genre.
It’s a horrible cliché, but if you’re a fan of the novels or the TV series, you’ll probably like this solid adaptation. However, it would be a shame if that was the only audience that ever looked at The Expanse RPG, because despite its occasional quirks it’s a rock-solid slice of hard-ish sci-fi married to a system that offers plenty of crunchy options without drowning folks in tables, charts and sub-rules.
A solid adaptation of a sci-fi world that neatly balances action-packed adventures and a firm sense of realism.