Between Chains and Starlight – Version 2.0
This book by Space Potato Productions is 288 pages long, 1 page front cover, 1 page of editorial, 1 page SRD, 2 pages about the book, 2 pages ToC, 1 page blank inside the back cover, 1 page back cover, leaving us with a whopping 279 pages of content, so let’s take a look, shall we?
We kick off this setting’s introduction with a flavor-text in character that gives us a brief (and surprisingly well-written) run-down of the setting: Essentially, it was not an AI that led to this dystopian future, but rather mankind’s own potential for less than savory practices: In a vast war, a significant amount of planets was destroyed and made uninhabitable and now, the empires of Corinth and Kurion are at a stand-off -when Altair is discovered: A comparably primitive world, yes, but a populated one and one rife for the taking, one that dares stand up to those two entities. As you can glean from this introduction, the sci-fi setting as depicted herein is not particularly rosy, but it does have the makings of being potentially played in a more over the top space-opera style.
Now the first thing you’ll notice from the introduction of the setting would be that both magic and technology exist -some of the worlds covered in the setting may actually be of your regular technology-level of fantasy worlds or pre-industrial revolution societies – the opening of portals and interstellar travel to those can of course result in massive changes in the way demographics react to ideas – as a catalyst for change and sheer unlimited potential for cultural clashes, the premise could be described as “Magic offsets technology’s advantages in part” and “There is no prime directive”. In the meanwhile, the darker empires out there are on the verge of decline, whereas the fractured empires of Altair have united under the Admiralty, and much like other human empires, crafted space ships to defend them, taking half-understood knowledge salvaged from wrecks etc. to do so. On the side of most important technological advances should stand the 3D-printing and CnC-advances, Plasma Thrusters and cold fusion reactors – while computers have hit a dead-end, with sufficiently powerful AIs and systems usually running afoul of a weird wave that hampers their processes – hence, human presence is still essential in warfare, though drones and the like are still used. Trans-planar communication is handled via satellites and asynchronous, for the information only manages the speed of light, so in Simmon’s terms, information incurs quite a time debt. Travel between galaxies is undertaken via worm-holes in the (relative) proximity of the respective central stars. Surprisingly, only ships boarded by organic life seem to be able to make these instantaneous jumps – hence, the jumping is actually treated as a magical/psionic effect. So let’s sum up the status quo – we have two evil empires, an emergent light in the Admirality, Hazioth (more on that later) and some potential, including hostile galaxies.
Okay, that essentially are the basics – after that, we’re introduced to Altair, the first faction: Essentially a feudal, magical setting that has instantly been made aware of technology – hard sci-fi mixed with a backdrop of feudal fantasy. Much like the overall star-system map, we also get a map of one part of a planet and quite an array of fiction that goes into the peculiarities from this unique set-up, written in-character from various perspectives and covering thus some peculiarities – e.g. the problems of attacking undead with laser-guns. Each faction herein comes with nice in-character narratives, by the way!
The Corinthian Hegemony is a dystopian society where the rich and powerful have, via a tight control of education etc. – life-expectancy is 54 years (strangely for men and women), while only 10% truly hold power and live in comfort. The extremely militaristic hegemony has been radically changed from an almost satire-level over-indulgence in clichés of militaristic empires into an actually believable political entity with fitting education, social structure etc. – it is still an oppressive regime combining the worst aspects of elitism and communism, but the new depiction of the hegemony no longer paints the picture of a bland, pseudo-grimdark dystopia, instead creating a dystopia that makes sense in its mindless efficiency. Kudos to the author for vastly improving this particular component and the writing in this chapter – from a bad cliché to proper, believable antagonists, this section has went quite a long way!
Hazioth is the utopian equivalent to Corinth’s Dystopia – loosely based on egalitarian values as practiced in our world, this faction is most earth-like and un-alien, also in its aesthetics – the faction represents mankind getting it mostly right, representing an ideological point quite akin to what we consider desirable. Where before, the faction was a bland way of saying “these guys are like us and the good guys”, we now receive information on how magic etc. have influenced the life and how economy and all the rest work – more interestingly, the very existence of Hazioth is predicated on essentially being wedged in between a rock and a hard place – an attack by either hegemony or Kurions would leave the aggressor open for incursions of their adversaries, meaning that Hazioth, caught in an unofficial detente, has to carefully balance its own actions to maintain its existence. A *vast* step forward for the whole concept that renders the whole faction much more compelling and, once again, concise. Obvious logic-bugs have been destroyed and replaced with believable writing – kudos!
Speaking of evil empires: You thought the Corinthian Hegemony was despicable? Kurions use cybernetic implants to rule absolutely over a huge population of people, enforcing their will upon them – where the Corinthians are decadent, despicable despots, the Kurions are downright fascist bastards, complete with Running Man-like gladiatorial TV-programs and mass-deportations to refresh the ranks of their cyborgs. Environment is poisoned and ruined, military police is corrupt and overall, the living conditions are a total disaster. At least here, there are the seeds of organized rebellion in the making, futile and doomed though it may be. Now I still maintain, that ruling a dystopian empire with the carrot is easier than with the stick – why oppress and bury in violence when you can rule and be loved by the population? All dictators that are truly “successful” have learned to sway the masses in their favor – you can antagonize adversaries, but you need to establish a common enemy, a cultural identity, an ideology to enforce properly such a system – essentially a threat that justifies being a tyrant. That being said, somewhere between late Roman empire, fascism and the introduction of cyborg slaves and magic, I *can* now believe in the weave Benjamin Martinali weaves – while still not 100% as diversified as I would have imagined, the increased emphasis on entertainment to sedate the masses and decrease of emphasis on mind control does work in favor of the whole portrayal of the empire.
It should be noted that the miscellaneous minor players among the interstellar factions also receive excessive write-ups, with more details than before and 3 sample planets with detailed history etc. and a whole array of fully statted star systems with travelling speed, hazards etc. are provided, often including rather inspiring potential ideas for adventures.
The basics of the setting out of the way, we are introduced to 5 new feats related to e.g. starship piloting. Computer-Use and Crafting of various technological tools are also covered, as is piloting and repairing items. As a neat bonus, we also receive a rather nice, short rules primer for the effects of planets from 2G to 0G, allowing for more diversified combat mechanics. While I would have enjoyed rules that affect not only acrobatics and encumbrance, but also ref-saves, falling damage and movement, that is probably beyond the scope of this otherwise already massive book.
Speaking of items: Sealed suits and integrating magic items into them is covered as are powered armors -the rules to create these are awesomely customizable, with minor inconsistencies having been ironed out. It’s cool that armor may have chameleon skin for invisibility-camouflage and even cooler that technology/magic discrepancy has been addressed – yes, spells affect tech and vice versa.
Energy weapons, sonic weapons etc. are also introduced – including their own restrictions. Whereas before, the science geek in me rebelled against some of the restrictions, the new take on weapon classes vastly increases their appeal – the presentation is not only more concise, it also can easily be described as more sensible, with all limitations adhering to logical behavior.
Burst Fire and auto-fire get their own rules, which once again have been streamlined into a better functioning new guise – that is more elegant to boot! Consider me thoroughly satisfied on that end, at least in the face of this book covering *A LOT* of ground.
Scanners, psionic receptacles (which can regenerate bullets, repair items, ships etc.) and similar items are introduced and rather cool. What about magic and technology? Well, there is an arcane technology school and a cleric domain (both of which violate standard formatting for lists like that – surprising to see such easily fixed glitches remain when the hard things to change and improve are done) and essentially, magic and technology can be freely combined – true strike sniper rifles? Yes, possible. Spells to highjack machines, clear viruses etc.? Covered. Punch others through the web via Punch by IP? Yes. While cool and catering to my sensibilities, these spells make for problematic laws – while dealing only non-lethal damage, how authorities deal with options like this would be VERY interesting. Oh, and I want to cast Summon Ferret Inside Enemy Spacesuit – yes, this spell exists herein. AWESOME. Speaking of awesome – while I’m not wholly sold on the blending of technology and magic, at least the book wholeheartedly embraces the potential: Cold lasers, bayonets that cause machines to flee, crystals that can be substituted for XP in crafting and even medical units and regenerating pods can be found herein. It should be mentioned that the XP-cost here is, of course, a remnant of 3.X’s rulesets and thus pretty much obsolete in PFRPG, but in case you’re playing 3.X, this item class should be considered a godsend.
Now what about creatures? The setting herein has Cyborgs -quite a bunch of them, and yes, they can be hacked, their control/torture-chips over-ridden. And yes, we get all the DCs as well as neat artworks for most of the cyborgs – from strange assassin-cyborgs to walking turrets and the Kurian nobles, we get quite a neat array herein. Have I mentioned the Cyborg Tyrannosaurus or the optional ability-upgrade Kurian nobles may get by entering a pact with a demon? Or the fact that the Kurian emperor’s brain has been implanted into a gold dragon (yes, there’s a template for that!). Living machines are essentially free-willed machines that developed a sentience and have since turned away from their erstwhile creators: Taking imagery from insects, fungi and similar designs, these machines feel distinctly alien, with e.g. the fungi being able to reactivate defeated machines and huge mechanical mantises acting as “living” siege weapons. Have I mentioned undead space pirates? Better yet, where before, here and there wonky rules-representations deviated from established rules-standards, now proper use is made of just about all of them – iconic and cool tricks by e.g. gigantic, intelligent mantis-shaped machines have been streamlined, making this whole chapter, over all, damn cool!
Now, we also get ship-to-ship combat rules – and they are actually rather good: Not using the basic vehicle-rules, though, they allow for multiple characters to act, with the pilot’s skill adding to the AC each round, gunners shooting, electronic warfare etc. – a rather significant amount of options are available, though distances are mostly handled on a relative scale, not a simulationalist’s scale. We also get a rather impressive array of quick-to-play rules here – mass warfare, Point-blank combat, planetside combat and combat as cruise speed – a surprising and more importantly, surprisingly easy to grasp array of options for proper ship-to ship combat that can keep more than one player engaged is presented here. Kudos! We also get a SIGNIFICANT array of generic ship classes including mass, hp, hd etc., including some planetside combat vehicles like hovertanks. Customization is also rather important -from shield generators, to increased speed, weaponry etc. to actual technology that can be further upgraded via magic, this chapter, if anything, could have been even longer for my tastes – it’s by far the most fun and versatile of the chapters so far, even before introducing jammer missiles and all those delightful ship weapons. And yes, all of these components are expensive as sin, but come on – you KNOW you want to blast something to pieces with a friggin’ fusion torpedo! IMines have been rolled into another chart, by the way. What’s not an oversight, but a tinker’s wet dream, would be the massive rules for creating your own ship – tables upon tables upon tables upon tables – easy to understand, expensive, but oh so rewarding. Of course, we also get sample crews and ships by the respective major player fractions, with e.g. Corinthian ships utilizing modules to change type and weaponry – cool idea and solid execution! Oh yes, and there are star- wraiths and pirate ships herein, too!
The next chapter deals with vehicle combat rules – These work mostly analogue to ship combat and include spider-mechs, hover limousines and the like – a rather large array of vehicles, but by far not that many exclusive customization options as the ships – comparatively to the excessive ship options, vehicles receive a relative short end of the stick, but then again, quite a few ship options can conceivably be applied to vehicles as well. Now personally, I would have enjoyed seeing vehicles being impacted more by high/low gravity, but that is admittedly a nitpick.
Chapter 5 then offers Missions, i.e. adventure-outlines, intended for characters between level 6 and 10 and providing basics as well as a general outline and maps. I’ll only briefly glance over these, but still: Players should skip to the end of the
Still here? All right! The first mission is all about two cults warring on Altair, both of which have purchased a biological weapon that now kills the primitive inhabitants. In order to stop the plague, the PCs have to unearth the origin of the plague, its design-specifics from a cell-phone, and request help from Hazioth. In the next mission, they are to follow up on this issue and thus defeat lizardfolk, kobold tinkers’ berserk reverse engineered Cyborgs and finally defeat the Kurion spy and his evil druid assistant. The next mission sees the PCs stranded on Tajano, a Kurion-controlled planet, where they’ll have to survive in the wasteland, deal in trading bunkers and scavenge in hostile terrain featuring both living machines and marauders – fully mapped, btw.! Finally, the PCs will need to travel to the city of Lixian, where they’ll have chances to interact with a living machine nursery and even infiltrate a military base before finally repairing the ship and escaping first the world, and then the system- I would have LOVED this mission being depicted in full-blown mega-adventure-detail – it is rather fun, but due to its format also requires severe work on behalf of the DM to flesh out. The next mission is more straight-forward and has the PCs hired to deal with pirates attacking a particular asteroid-colony -when properly played up, this one may become VERY creepy. Neato. The next mission has an uncommon target – the PCs are to crash a Kurion series and prevent psionic rift drive components from falling into the hands of either competing Kurion nobles. This, of course, is harder than it seems at first and includes infiltration and finally entering a huge ice-lump in space (with ship to steal the prize. Again, neat!
The massive appendix includes fluff-only write-ups of sample NPCs, random encounters (CR 6 – 15) and an example for ship to ship combat to help you get how the rules work.
Editing and formatting have vastly improved – while any book of this size is bound to have glitches here and there, this pdf can be considered well-edited. Layout has been streamlined into a uniform style – gone are the printer-draining pages of white text on black background and the 2-column standard is actually nice and makes reading much easier than before. The overall presentation and rules-language has been greatly streamlined to conform more closely to PFRPG-default standards. The pdf comes massively bookmarked with nested bookmarks, a zip containing the copious maps to be printed out separately and additionally, we receive an EXTREMELY printer-friendly second b/w-version of the pdf – now that is service!
Benjamin Martinali’s “Between Chains & Starlight” is an extremely ambitious setting – and in its first iteration, it failed to realize to unify all of the copious components, which was to be expected for a project of one man. Still, it did show promise galore and know what? After my admittedly very critical review of the original pdf, I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had abandoned the project. It is my utmost pleasure to report that this reviewer at least is very glad he didn’t. My criticism, unlike in most books I review, wasn’t directed (primarily) on the rules, though some remnants were there that required revision. Instead, the main issue of the first iteration of this setting was simply that its internal logic and writing didn’t gel well together.
This is almost an impossible feat to fix and it didn’t expect the focus of the revision to actually lie on making the whole setting more consistent.. Benjamin Martinali has done it. I can actually see myself running this system, this setting, with its nigh infinite possibilities. The formal issues of the book have almost completely vanished and version 2.0 does not have any need to hide behind the big setting. From all original full color art, to much more believable, ultimately more interesting renditions of the factions, to better prose and additional content, this is one of the most significant improvements I’ve seen in my whole career as a reviewer. Now it should be noted that ships and vehicles sport their own rules, so there’s not much overlap in that regard with Paizo’s take on vehicles – and in this case, this is probably a good idea. What really made me grin from ear to ear were the small parts -the fixing of special energy weapon types, the more “realistic”, less stereotype laden-portrayal of societies, the very fact that this massive book simply reads infinitely better than its predecessor.
Let’s get that out of the way: “Between Chains and Starlight V.2.0” is a damn good book and even more impressive as the achievement of a single author. It is a labor of love and it shows in all the right ways. Beyond the inspiring ideals and streamlined mechanics, some rough patches can be identified, but a system that, from currency to politics, manages to cover such an extent is damn impressive. Now who does this compare to Necropunk or Amethyst Renaissance? It doesn’t – the two are completely distinct entities at this point, with BCaS setting the focus much closer to blending scifi and fantasy…and actually achieving that. Where the former two focus on real world issues, philosophical ideas and transhumanist concepts, struggles between ideologies etc., BCaS is more focused on portraying a fantasy-like take on a scifi setting, moving away from this gravitas into the realms of space opera; mind you, this does not mean that the setting can’t support these themes and does touch them, just that it’s focus it completely different. Now I *could* nitpick components of the world-building here and there, but that wouldn’t do this book justice.
There is one more factor to consider – this is a “Pay what you want”-book on OBS. That’s a pretty powerful enticing factor for it. After carefully considering the book’s virtues, I can definitely recommend spending at the very least 5 bucks, probably even 10 – 15 on it. Why? Because even if you only end up using some customization options, the weapons or the monsters (or the modules!), you’ll get your money’s worth.
This is the scifi/space mash-up quite a few people demanded and V.2.0 makes for a compelling, massive and unique setting that has greatly matured since its first iteration. The incorporation of the material from “Dragons in Space” also helps the book alongside added art, maps, expanded space combat etc. Never, for the life of me, would I have imagined this revamp improving the first book to this extent. And know what? I actually might use quite a bunch of the material herein – whether for Iron Gods or one of my numerous scifi-infusions in regular gaming. My final verdict will hence clock in at a very warm recommendation of 4.5 stars; I’d usually round down here due to some unnecessary deviations from the base system and some minor rules-relics, but seeing the amount of bang herein and the generous gesture of making this “pay what you want”, I’ll instead round up to 5 – people, take a look and give this a read. It is worth your time.
Oh, and my heartfelt congratulations to the author – it takes true dedication to provide such a massive overhaul.
You can get this massive tome for any price you want here on OBS!