Universal Exploits (OSR/d6)
This massive supplement clocks in at 110 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page blank inside of front cover, 2 pages of editorial, 2 pages of ToC, 1 page for notes, 1 page Kort’thalis glyph, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 101 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
All right, first things first: This is a book for the Alpha Blue RPG – that means it’s deliberately written as an homage to 70s’ and 80s’ scifi-porn spoofs. The eponymous Alpha Blue would be a space-station know for its decadence, sex and drugs. It is also that book that contains the base rules for the Alpha Blue system, a variant of Venger As’Nas Satanis’ rules-lite VSd6-engine. If you are offended by drawn breasts, pornographic imagery or the like, you may want to skip this. That being said, Universal Exploits is slightly less explicit in its artworks than the first expansion for Alpha Blue, Girls Gone Rogue. Personally, I think it’s pretty tame and that you can see more explicit material on youtube and in your average music video, but then again, I come from a European cultural background, so I do not profess to get the whole nakedness anxiety angle. Reader discretion is advised – if you need further guidance, feel free to read my reviews for the previous two books.
All right, that out of the way, I mentioned that I think Alpha Blue works best as a change of pace, as a beer-and-pretzels-style one-shot/mini-campaign. There’s a reason for that and Girls Gone Rogue made that evident: The campaign setting aspect was very much one locale; we did not get the big picture, the overall context, which made Girld Gone Rogue feel a bit more haphazard and slightly like it was floating in space. Well, Universal Exploits would be the book that provides the context, that shows us the big picture. It is, in short the world- (or rather: Galaxy) book.
After a brief introductory story, we dive right in – namely into a variant expansion for ship to ship combat’s table, which notoriously could prove extremely lethal…and not fun in any prolonged campaign. This would also be an indicator of the things to come – we begin with Venger’s signature wealth of tables upon tables…and variant rules, like carrying over excess damage to other targets. There also would be a mechanic to get advantage on attributes…but those with two strong suits also suffer disadvantage on one, so choose wisely! Simple unarmed strike rules can also be found here, as can rules for domain management and clones – and yes, the latter touches upon the chance of psychotic clones, how to condition them, etc. – rules and flavor are entwined here and a massive table allows you to determine previous romantic/sexual relationships with given NPCs.
As you’ve noticed, there is some setting information in these flavor aspects; which brings me to a slight criticism: The rules-relevant unarmed strike, etc.-rules are mixed in between e.g. tables to roll xenophobia, hilarious and flavorful alien languages, where one’s planet is in the context of the universe, travel time, cryosleep, rules for the GM to randomly determine a location for PCs or NPCs, tables to handle cockblocking, passenger-and agent-generators and the like. In short: I wish we got the rules first, the flavor later – the structure here can be a bit confusing if you need to look something up. Granted, with the system’s simplicity, that won’t happen often, but yeah.
Rules for career benefits, telepathy and drugs (including optional withdrawal) are generally concise – telepaths wear the signature gloves we know from many a science-fiction and generally will have either a faction allegiance…or the big guys will start looking for them. The multicultural cesspool Revan 111 features a massive table of rumors and secrets of 100 entries that can easily be used in other locations and alien cultural bias is similarly covered. 100 entries for the after-party range from the weird to the raunchy. Let me quote the book: “A corndog is being used as a dildo on an Orion slave girl in full view of the party’s attendees. The one holding the corndog looks like a tall hairy beast with pointy ears and a small abdominal creature growing out of him. The walking shag-carpet is wearing an orange leisure suit.”
That entry is basically the tone in a nutshell. 100 religious practices for the often problematic space gods, 100 lesser (i.e. not sex) desires, 100 aspects of an alien world – there are a ton of details to be found within these pages.
After this massive section, we move on to some advice regarding the running of adventures and how to make them yourself before we take a look at one of the central antagonists of the setting: The Federation. Corrupt, bloated and mired in bureaucracy, it enriches the rich and ruthlessly exploits the masses…for spacers are belonging to the very much dwindled middle class that is on the verge of extinction; they are basically the wild-card in the class struggle. Universal Exploits, the eponymous organization, would be basically an organization that hands spacers assignments – think of it as somewhat like Cowboy Bebop’s headhunter news, only that it doesn’t broadcast assignments widely and instead provides them to spacers. There are some pros and cons for joining UX, but if you want steady employment, they are the place to go in the final frontier. Thus, we begin the module-section of this book with a massive read-aloud box and the PCs signing up.
And here begins the adventure component of the book. Potential players should jump to the conclusion – SPOILERS abound!
All right, only Space DMs around? Great! So, the first thing you need to know is that you won’t get an encounter-by-encounter write-up, no read-aloud texts or the like – the adventure presented is pretty much a skeletal structure, that the SDM has to flesh out. If you want go-play modules, you won’t find them here. If, however, you’re looking for interesting story-lines to flesh out, then this book delivers. It should be noted that the structure is a bit strange – e.g. the “Rebels without a Cause”-sequence has the same header as an adventure and they flow into one another. So, what are the storylines about? The first module centers around shipments of the Purple Prizm, a cult drink that acts as aphrodisiac and has religious significance for some alien cultures. Shipments have been recently intercepted and the trail leads towards the Vertuda triangle, where the PCs can meet Aleister Franken; meet a reptilian Zedi and battle mad metal militia – yep, stats included. But the PCs will sooner or later catch up with sunbelt distribution and there find a hostile starship and the true masterminds behind the brewing conflict between the species reliant on Purple Prizm.
The second adventure, “Origins of the Mauve Council”, also features Purple Prizm – the Kyntari generate a distilled, more potent version…which can make the Mauve Council change the very rules of the universe. The Kyntari have determined that New Earth needs to be wiped, but the PCs should save the one worthy being…but alas, the PCs will be caught and need to break free. “The PCs will have to use their imaginations in order to free themselves.” That’s the guidance you’ll get. I’m not complaining, mind you – but I think it’s important to know how the material is presented to avoid disappointment. On the plus-side: Have I mentioned fighting space ninjas?
The next of the scenarios deals with a planned supermerger of World Space Burgers and Star Cola: Taste the Next Generation! – both companies having addictive flavor profiles. The federation has its own nasty division, intergalactic comestibles has its own nasty research that is threatening to really wreck citizens and the companies – millions of tax-payer bucks make for a huge advantage. The PCs are tasked to wipe this secret division from the face of the universe – and to do so, they’ll have to go through a vessel and find the base. Neither vessel or base are depicted or elaborated upon.
Pussy-Chasers: The legend of Oral deals with a strange sex-poor universe and the task of finding Malachite’s gate – in the sex-rich universe beyond, there is the mythic blade called Kort’thalis, a ridiculously powerful weapon that may well change the very universe.
Beyond these adventure sketches, the pdf also contains set-pieces – these include a red-hologram district and Grabba the Butt’s pleasure palace. Beyond these a quick chart for determining NPC possessions and land rush tables complement the content section of the pdf.
We also receive a nice two-page Alpha Blue character-sheet, once in color and once in b/w. in the tradition with the books in this series, we get amazing player-friendly blue-print-style maps of space ships, penned by Glynn Seal: Exploit class, milkshake class, feral class and huntsman class…and Grabba’s massive pleasure palace also gets an amazing, detailed map, ending the book on a high note.
Editing and formatting are very good, I noticed no grievous glitches in either criteria. The rules-language is much more precise than in Girls Gone Rogue. Kudos! Layout adheres to the cool and distinct style in 2-column b/w we know from the Alpha Blue books. The b/w-artworks are diverse and well-made, covering various distinct styles, ranging from massive 1-page b/w-spoofs on scifi material or three-breasted, tentacle-armed strippers. The electronic version comes fully bookmarked with nested bookmarks. The electronic version comes with a massive 600 dpi high-res jpeg for the Grabba pleasure palace, milkshake and exploit ship, but strange, not the other two – which is a bit odd to me. Two of the artworks inside have color highlights and the maps similarly have a gorgeous, used look in color, though the softcover print version is b/w. It should be noted that the pdf clocks in at a massive 100 MBs, so if you’re using electronic devices with a very limited HD, that’s something to bear in mind.
Venger As’Nas Satanis Universal Exploits is the book for Alpha Blue that makes it work as more than just a brief sojourn. Now, the weakest part of the book would be the adventure sketches – while stronger than in GGR, they still could all use more details and require some serious improvisation and work by the SDM to run. Don’t get me wrong: Idea-wise, they all are winners, brimming with imagination. At the same time, I wished that the book had taken the time to completely structure at least one of the sketches presented. This structure-issue also hounds the lack of distinction between dressing and crunch.
That being said, Universal Exploits should still be considered to be a resounding success. Why? It contextualizes Alpha Blue in a concise and interesting meta-setting and actually manages to make that setting feel compelling and interesting. Though setting does not really properly describe it. You see, this book does not describe: “This is how the federation works, planets X, Y and Z can be found there, here are religions 1, 2 and 3.” Instead, it establishes the basic concepts, the leitmotifs, the theme of this massive universe. Basically, you get all the tools to make this universe your own and emphasize/de-emphasize the components that intrigue you and your group.
In short, the book allows you to run campaigns in the universe; not one-shots, not one-week-end campaigns, but proper campaigns. While GGR is an optional “more of the same”-expansion, Universal Exploits should be considered to be a must-have expansion for Alpha Blue. From the better ship combat tables to the added details, this makes the system and setting just work better in every conceivable way.
Now, this does not change that this is a winking parody of space, a celebration of 70s/80s scifi-porn spoofs. It’s still somewhat puerile, it’s highly referential in its humor and it’s not a system that will make you play highly tactical, strategic space battles. It’s a beer-and-pretzels rules-lite game and Universal Exploits does not change that.
However, it does allow those groups that WANT to play a longer campaign with the system, that love the tone, play longer, more involved stories. This book generates the tools for the SDM to make the universe make sense.
How to rate this, then? Well, if you’re not interested by Alpha Blue, then this book will not change that. If you liked Alpha Blue and wanted to see the bigger picture, if you wanted the toolkit for the overall picture, the campaign setting toolkit, if you will, then this is the must-have expansion. Design-wise, it is more precise than GGR, but still inherits some minor weaknesses in the structure of the presentation of the material. My final verdict will hence clock in at 4.5 stars, rounded up due to in dubio pro reo.
You can get this book here on OBS (also in print)!
You can get Alpha Blue, Girls Gone Rogue and Universal Exploits in a pdf-bundle here on OBS!