Centauri Knights Capsule Review by 27Rats on 26/05/01
Style: 4 (Classy and well done)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)
A 'harder' sci-fi setting than might be expected for an anime game. Well worth picking up.
Product: Centauri Knights
Author: David L. Pulver
Company/Publisher: Guardians of Order
Line: Big Eyes, Small Mouth
Cost: $15.95 US
Page count: 112
Year published: 2001
Comp copy?: no
Capsule Review by 27Rats on 26/05/01
Genre tags: Science Fiction Space Anime
I got BESM in no small part because of the many glowing reviews I'd seen of the system, and I wasn't disappointed. The system impressed me as being elegant and straightforward, and had such range that it was the perfect system for a few game ideas I'd had tossing around in my head for a while but for which I just hadn't been able to find an appropriate system.
When I started trying to put one of those games together, though, I ran into a bit of a problem. BESM supplies great rules for designing equipment, but doesn't provide too many examples of those rules in action. For equipment, there's just two pages of weapons (greatly appreciated, but even in my games there's more to life than combat), a page of armour, and stats for a war ram and a battle mover. But, for example, when building a futuristic vehicle, what's appropriate to include in game terms and what can just be taken as given? Sure, I could try to figure it out on my own, but being either rather slow upstairs or abominably lazy (you pick) I thought I'd try to find out how the game designers thought the rules could be used. So I began to look for a setting supplement, and the first to come out was Centauri Knights (CK).
I almost didn't pick up CK when I saw it on the shelves. I'm glad I changed my mind.
The book is the same size as the BESM rules (A-4? guessing wildly), with non-glossy pages and black and white art inside. The print is in a fairly small print, packing in a lot of info. Headings are larger, in bold, in a different font, and easy to use to navigate around the book. Although there's border art on each page (a circuit diagram on a background of 1's and 0's), it doesn't take up too much space. There's a lot of stuff in these 112 small pages.
There's a two-page table of contents that's detailed enough to be decent reference on its own. In addition, however, there's a three-page index. It's in pretty small type, in order to fit in hundreds of entries. It's a good index, but has a couple of quirks. Important dates, almost all from the introductory timeline (more on that later), are each included in the index twice - once year first (2031, Jan 23) and once month first (Jan 23, 2031). It's a nice thought, that whichever order you normally use when thinking of dates you'll be able to find what you're looking for, but I'm not sure how useful it is. (Oh, FYI, 2031 January 23, on page 8, has a summary of information gained from the alien spacecraft that was discovered on Mars. It also has the first reference to SQUID probes, which even though they aren't what they sound like, still sound fun.) On the other hand, when I was trying to find out what the CK dollar's buying power was like, it wasn't in the index under either "money" or "currency," but was under "economics" - slightly unintuitive, for me at least, but it looks like it's all in there. Finally, there's a one-page glossary with a couple of probably unnecessary entries ("cm" and "kph" might be helpful for readers not used to the metric system, but most everyone should know what "R&R" is) and a couple of fun ones ("REMF" and "RICE," for example); most are just straightforward and useful.
All of the art, including the cover, is done by one artist, Ed Northcott. Northcott is a good artist, with a clean but reasonably detailed style, and provides a consistent look to the setting. Another nice touch is that all of the illustrations are right beside the appropriate text and are even labelled, letting you know exactly what you're looking at. There aren't any wasted illustrations that are there just to take up space, except for the terrorist bad-girl cheesecake on page 31. Other than that, even the full-page art at the chapter title pages helps show how representatives of the different groups running around Alpha Centauri look when interacting. (As mentioned above, all interior art is black and white [and shades of grey], since this is a supplement and carries a slightly smaller price tag than the full-colour glossy main rulebook.)
The cover is by Ed Northcott too, but isn't that impressive. It's a fine illustration, but shouldn't have been the cover. It shows a yellow sun in a red sky, over a red planet, and a red monster (a heavy xenopanzer) attacking a human in grey power armour (a Panther servopanzer). The human's armour has a red plasma knife. The title is in unusually small print for a book's name, in pretty much the same grey as the human's armour. It's very monotonous colour-wise, and the book sinks into the shelves rather than stand out (especially where, like the store I picked CK up in, they use wood-grain shelves).
The back cover is a sample recruitment ad for CENCOR, looking for (among others) software testers, civil engineers, pharmers (their spelling), and archaeologists. It doesn't do much to describe what's in the book, though. It may be shallow on my part, but the front and back covers are the reason CK gets a 4 for style instead of 5. Other than the covers, the book is presented very beautifully.
So what do you get in CK? First up is a foreword describing the development of CK from an adventure in Big Robots, Cool Starships (the first supplement for BESM 1st ed.) to its present form, and an explanation why it took so long (short form: things got busy at the GOO offices, so fair enough). There's also a request for input on what readers want for the future of CK, which is a friendly touch.
The introduction sets out the history leading up to the current setting in excerpts from books, news reports, transcripts of political speeches or radio communications, and the like. The excerpt style isn't too intrusive and manages to get the information across with a slight sense of context. Briefly, an alien starship is found crashed on Mars, which eventually leads to the discovery of the ruins of a civilisation around Alpha Centauri.
After the introduction come two chapters, running about fifty pages, of rules for characters and equipment. Then chapter four picks up with a description of the worlds and inhabitants of Alpha Centauri. Personally I would have found CK better organised if, before listing the skills a typical UNSAID inspector would have as a character, the book told me what exactly UNSAID is and what role its members have at Alpha Centauri. This is only a problem on the first read-through, but I still would appreciate more details on setting earlier in the book. Unlike modern-day settings (Feng Shui, any superhero game, or the like), where everyone knows the basics, or fantasy settings where there are standards that almost always carry over to one degree or another, in science fiction settings the rules of the universe can change dramatically from one to the next. Is there faster-than-light travel? Nanotechnology? Genetic engineering (and how much impact has it had)? Are there any aliens at all, and if so how common, and how different, are they? I don't need my character to have spaceship piloting skill if everyone uses commercial transports and space dogfights are impossible because of the speed of ships versus the speed of projectiles, distances, and so on.
CK is a relatively hard sci-fi setting, where some attention to current scientific concepts of natural laws is paid. There's no faster-than-light travel. Communications take four years to get from Earth to Alpha Centauri. Because of the acceleration involved, people making the trip go frozen, and for efficiency and safety go as frozen brains in jars. A brain gets a cloned or cyborg body on arrival.
There's a lot of attention paid to nanotechnology. (For more on real-world hopes for nanotechnology, and an intro to the subject, try: http://www.zyvex.com/nano/ .) The various future tech in CK (such as fully functional and realistic cyborg bodies to house brains coming out of travel jars) is reasonable once you accept nanotechnology as significantly developed. The nasty potential of nanotechnology is also mentioned, and is in fact responsible for Alpha Centauri being a desolate ghost town (thanks to the Alkahest, a super-disassembler fog).
All that's left of Osiran (the aliens, since humans have named the chief planet Osiris) civilisation is a planet-wide fog of drifting nanites. Osirans had developed implants (dream jewels) that allowed them to use this fog (called by humans ghost fog) to create what they wanted when they wanted. And so, as CK points out, most buildings have no furniture, since the Osirans would just use the ghost fog to make a chair when they wanted a sit. A few humans have started to use dream jewels, which makes for the closest in CK to magic or psionics; compared to the glories of the Osirans alluded to, though, human skill at using the ghost fog is still pretty minimal.
There aren't that many people in Alpha Centauri (139 400, actually), divided into various camps. Society on Alpha Centauri is an intriguing and reasonable mix of an Old West company town, where most people either work for the Company or try to go back to the land like the original inhabitants, and life in a battleground between UN peacekeepers and political terrorists. The UN forces are pretty much bright and heroic, with no traces of dark one-world paranoia - it's a positive future, and a GM would have to work at it to insert a political conspiracy. (That doesn't mean there's no fun to be had with normal, opportunistic politics, though.) The background and motives of the terrorists, the Eye of Re, are given some space, enough to make them seem more than just ranting lunatics, but there's not enough (for me at least) to explain what drives someone to fire a nanotech weapon into a bus that'll convert the bus and everyone in it into a killer robot in the middle of a city. What makes the Eye of Re members feel so strongly in their cause to commit such atrocities, rather than use more peaceful political action like the Selket? Everyone involved is human, there are no more living Osirans, so as presented this is a clash of politics and philosophy rather than a clash of cultures or religions.
There's enough material on the organisations active in Alpha Centauri, the various locations, and social structures to get started. However, to run a campaign in this setting will either take a bit of development by the GM or another supplement. Take as an example Osiris, the main planet. There are two major continents, with about seven major cities on Nekhebet and one major and a couple of unnamed minor cities (well, bubblefarm townships) on Edjo. There's a map for each continent that include major roads between settlements, but only one settlement is described in any detail at all, and there aren't even travel times between settlements mentioned.
And that's a shame. I picked up CK just hoping for sample vehicles and equipment using BESM rules, but I found myself so interested in the world presented that I'm actually looking forward to running a game in CK's Alpha Centauri. More info on setting, maybe focused on a couple of cities or one continent in more detail, would have been appreciated. There's also a number of habitats, apparently self-supporting space stations, so there's a lot to explore here.
As far as character creation goes, BESM uses skills rather than classes and levels, and so the question is what skills, and how high, are right for the setting. There are 17 occupational templates, which you can buy for a set amount and pick up Attributes, Defects and Skills. Even if you create a character from scratch, the templates are a great reference - compare your character to a special operations "operator" to see if your psycho survivalist farmer is scarily combat-oriented enough, for example. Appropriate and inappropriate Attributes and Defects are pointed out for guidance. The templates are varied enough to be good examples of how to arrange templates in other settings.
Details are given for building cyborgs, and humans with xenomods, medical procedures to adapt people to life on Osiris. All in all, there's enough variety to satisfy those groups where each character has to be distinct in game mechanics rather than role-playing portrayal (although the GM may have a bit of difficulty tying together a human law enforcer, a cyborg farmer, a businessperson who can only eat native Osiran food, and a schoolgirl with fur and a tail).
Then there's about thirty-four pages of equipment, ranging from guns to heavy xenopanzers, to medical nanotechnology and Orbital Transfer Vehicles. This was what I bought CK for, and it's given me a sense of how to design equipment to fit into a world. Everything holds together and seems at first glance, at least, to be appropriately balanced (which means that the scorpion xenomechs, the Osiran robotic attach guard dogs, are as scary as they should be to an average character). All of the major equipment (panzers [power armour], spacecraft, etc.) has point totals and is broken down to show exactly where those points came from, so tweaking something is simplicity itself. There's clearly a lot of time and energy that went into developing CK, and it's produced a winning setting. As a very nice touch, there's a two-page explanation for a GM of what actually happened to end Osiran civilisation. This lets the GM know exactly what's going on, and leaves it up to the GM to decide how much the players should know (or be able to find out). A GM to run a campaign from and feel comfortable developing new directions, depending on what mysteries the players want to explore, just from this book.
CK did leave me with a question, though. Since the Osiran vehicles look like Earth animals (a scarab beetle for ground transport and a manta ray for space travel), and Osiran animals look like fusions of Earth animals (the snail-bunny, the cat-serpent, and sharksquid, for example), does this mean there was more contact between Osiris and ancient Earth than people remember? Or are the similarities just a coincidence? Or is there another, deeper meaning? Or am I just being nit-picky?
CK provides a good look at BESM in action in developing a complete setting from scratch. The setting is well-developed, very interesting, internally logical, and has many opportunities for adventure even just on first glance. I bought it just for the vehicles, but found a lot more, and now can't wait to start roaming about Alpha Centauri. I look forward to more books in the CK line, and remained impressed by those folks at GOO.