Rocket Age is a game I’ve been waiting a long time for. Although the RPG market is flooded with steampunk and retro-pulp RPGs, this one hits a subtle note in tone that is different from the others. It plays its setting straight without losing the crazy unbound-by-actual-science idea of science fiction without turning everything into a self-deprecating cartoon. There is certainly room for those tropes if you want to inject them but there’s nothing inherently stupid about the setting treatment or the character options. In fact, despite some of the strange PCs that rose up out of the character generation process, I feel like all of the characters had a sincerity, heart, and dignity that wasn’t undermined by juvenile anime shtick or buried under piles of dust and monocles excreted by attempts at historical consistency or slavish adherence to the classic literary types. Translation – it doesn’t get in the way of its own fun either by being too serious or too childish.
Perhaps one of the drawbacks to its sleek early 20th century visual design is that one might mistake Rocket Age for some generic pulp sci-fi game with rules for rocket ships and a glossed-over history of our 1930s Earth. It is not. It’s crazy and detailed and is filled with story options and the kind of stuff around which you can really build a long-running campaign with a lot of interlocking substance.
The game takes place in a universe where in 1931 Einstein, Tesla and Ray Armstrong (replacing Goddard who fell ill) flew the starship Eagle to Mars and discovered an ancient, extremely advanced civilization in on the precipice of decline. From the Martians, the three geniuses took technological and creative inspiration which inevitably precipitated into all variety of scientific wonders and the deep end of the rocket age gets into full swing. Although the game so far focuses a lot on Venus and Mars, I suspect Jupiter and Saturn-focused books won’t be long off.
“The setting is very detailed; honestly, in some case, it feels overly detailed. There are certainly a lot of story opportunities available, but the spread of them in terms of location and people uneven. Personally, I find the concept of the Venusians as a lost race more compelling than the complicated caste politics of the Martians. I hope to see more upcoming material dedicated to them.
There’s also an odd feeling looking through the background that the writers attempted to take the retro Sci Fi genre and interweave it with modern social/political story elements. The setting seems more aimed at having the heroes fight against social injustice than, say, battle evil masterminds or explore ancient civilizations.”
Creating a character is quick and point based. Perhaps the longest consideration was given to the selection of everyone’s character’s species. To say that Rocket Age has a lot of character options is a gross understatement. In the core book alone, there are three races from the moons of Jupiter, gorilla-like Venusians, numerous castes of Martians and good ole Earthlings. Equipment is plentiful, detailed and storied. For exceptional equipment, players have a pool of story points that they can use to purchase and power some of the more extreme, game-altering gear. That being said, leftover points can be used to directly cheat fate so saving a few for a rainy, laser-laden day might be a good idea.
The characters we came up with were:
- A human Rocket Ranger who embodied every square-jawed, charismatic moron you’ve ever loved.
- A practically minded human scientist that added a touch of sanity to the cadre when she wasn’t diving into toxic or dangerous alien specimens.
- An optimistic Venusian wayfarer who pursued matters with forthrightness, manners and a jewel-encrusted ceremonial axe that could deflect lasers.
- A gnarled survivor of the Iotian purges that bootstrapped himself out of the muck with the help of a can-do attitude and a European disintegrator rifle.
The ship is basically a shared character. The core book gives good examples of ships and other modes of transportation. The one thing our group didn’t like was the lack of ships with a small, party-sized crew. Nonetheless, we decided to go with the spirit of this sci-fi before science and just customized our minimum crew count for our own narrative needs.
“I wish I had not gone into the game virtually blind. I don’t think I understood that you really should specialize in a handful of skills or how important attribute stats are. I was a bit of a generalist, and that did not do me any favors. The dice mechanic should have clued me in. There were times I definitely regretted my choices in character creation. Looking back, the career packages were a little unbalanced; take a look at the generic citizen package compared to the Rocket Ranger. While I suppose the cost does lead to more customization of citizen, looking at this adventure and other seeds, it seems to behoove you to pay for a high powered package in the beginning. The layout of the character creation section was far to much book flipping to be fun. The concept of character career packages is intriguing, though. I loved how they fleshed out the aliens – familiar, but unique.”
“I found the character generation pretty straightforward. It’s somewhat linear, in the sense that the selection of species and career has a fixed set of abilities, so there’s a bit of a cookie-cutter feel to how characters start, but there’s enough leeway for players to make some customizations and personalize them.”
The Rocket Age RPG uses the very smooth Vortex system that has also been seen in Cubicle 7’s Doctor Who and the Primeval RPG. It largely got out of our way when we needed it to. The system is basically:
2d6+ skill rating + attribute rating vs. difficulty rating
Damage on weapons is staged at three outcomes of mayhem with rules for automatic death effects (in case you want to use this game for grittier play – it could be incredibly lethal in cruel hands) based on a successful roll and the increments of success beyond the minimum needed.
Aside from looking up some specific equipment here and there, Rocket Age got out of our way and let us tell the story we wanted to tell.
“The Vortex system shows its roots from the Doctor Who RPG pretty clearly, especially in the way it handles combat. Task resolution is relatively easy, which helps. The rulebook needs to be better organized; we spent a lot of time having to look for certain rules that were not clearly spelled out or. in one case, not mentioned at all.”
Overall, I was happy with Rocket Age and I think the players were too. It did everything we wanted to and we weren’t buried under overly novel mechanics nor a freakishly cumbersome setting. The virtue of planets and isolated space bases makes the story as modular as you need it to be.
For our game we only used the core book. Nonetheless, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the game is well supported with three supplements including a full campaign and a comprehensive Mars guidebook.