Friday, May 13, 2011

Chthonian Stars at long last

Chthonian Stars has finally been released to much fanfare...ok, no fanfare. Still, it was the best-selling pdf on DriveThruRPG for a couple of days, so I can't be the only one who bought a copy. To recap, Chthonian Stars is a mashup of Alien, The Fifth Element and Call of Cthulhu. A rogue celestial body is approaching our solar system emitting some strange form of radiation which is causing all manner of apparently supernatural phenomena. Weird cults are popping up all over the solar system, ships are disappearing, atrocities are being committed by otherwise normal people and rumours of monster sightings circulate. The publisher, Wildfire, originally intended to release the game through Mongoose, using the Traveller ruleset. Something changed their minds and the game is undergoing a reboot. The new game will be called The Void and will use a new ruleset. However, there was much hype and excitement about the original idea and Chthonian Stars was pretty much complete when they decided to pull the plug, so they released it in pdf format.

The look of Chthonian Stars is very reminiscent of Wildfire's other rpg, CthulhuTech. It has the same artistic style and the same interspersed pieces of short fiction, although in general, I found the quality of the writing to be a bit inferior to CthulhuTech. It seemed to lack the same ability to inspire dread in the reader. Choosing to name one of the characters in one of the stories "Capt. Zack Bradigan" didn't help.

The setting of Chthonian Stars is a veritable cornucopia of future history tropes; a global economic crisis, a bushfire conflict in the Middle East leading to WWIII, a terrorist nuke and then everyone coming to their senses just in time, a golden age of cooperation and a return to space, colonization of the solar system and then, inevitably, an end to the glory days as the colonies grow restless. It is certainly a script we've all seen before, but it serves the campaign setting well enough. The "present" is the latter half of the 22nd century as the Chthonian Star approaches the solar system and end of the age of humanity looms.

Chapters on character generation and rule adaptations follow the setting description and they are fine. The default character concept is the Warden, basically a government agent mandated to investigate and, if possible, eliminate supernatural threats throughout the solar system. While other classes are certainly possible, only the Wardens have the authority to go anywhere from the mines of Mercury to the lonely outposts of the Kuiper Belt, thus making them the best choice for a party of investigators and they have a wide range of backgrounds so no two Wardens need be alike.

Technology seems to be a bit of an eclectic mix. Firearms are the default ranged weapon type. There are no lasers or particle beams, yet, oddly, there are some very high-tech melee weapon options including monofilaments and vibroblades. There is a surprisingly large number of space ship designs included in the game, warships, freighters, transports, shuttles, rescue vessels and the special "Knight's Errant Class" corvette used by the Wardens. There is no FTL capability and no artificial gravity, so setting aside the cosmic horror aspects, the game is quite hard sci-fi.

Following the chapters on equipment and ships, there is a chapter detailing the planets in the solar system as well as major extraplanetary bases and colonies. There is also a fairly extensive bestiary, which may be my favourite chapter in the book. My understanding is that a more detailed bestiary entitled Horrors of the Void is due to be released this summer as a pdf. If it is as good as the one in the core book, it should be excellent.

The last two chapters in the book are intended primarily for gamemasters. One deals with gamemastering in general. It includes advice on how to run a game, as well as a list of plot hooks and rumours GMs can use to get things moving. The other provides a lot of secret information on the setting as well as a few short adventures. I was a bit surprised by how much of the background on the Chthonian Star was actually revealed in this section. It's common for rpg designers to leave a lot of those details up to the GM to decide, but not in this case. It is well-advised that players keep away from the last chapter.

All in all, Chthonian Stars is a decent offering and given that Horrors of the Void will be the only supplement released for the game in this form, it should make for a nice complete game requiring only the core Traveller book to play. The setting is, perhaps, a bit less compelling than that of CthulhuTech, but it avoids the clunky Framewerk game mechanics, making it, in my opinion, a better and more playable Cthulhu space horror game.


Cross-posted at Rognar's Space Horror RPG Blog


Neal5x5 said...

I picked up Chthonian Starts and have really enjoyed reading it. Like you stated in your review, having the Traveller rules instead of Framewerk really helps the playbility along. It got me going again on horror and particularly space horror; I watched Event Horizon last night and was suprised at how well it has aged.

Rognar said...

A lot of people hate that movie, but I loved it. Genuinely scary and the ending was awesome.