Review : Red Dwarf The RPG

By Todd Downing, Deep7, £25/$34.95 Print

Three millions years into deep space…
It must be about a year since I heard about the plans to do a Red Dwarf RPG. To start with I was dubious, the guys with the license were American, they spelled Kebab as Kebob on their web site. Out of interest I got in contact with them, to get the scoop that became this interview. I was pleasantly surprised. They had a strong idea of what Red Dwarf was about. They wanted to remain true to the show. How cool was that!

A year later, and I’ve got the book in my hands. It’s slimmer than some RPGs, but the production values are very high. A mixture of full colour and 2 colour printing (black and red), it’s well layed out and information is well presented. It passes the “decent index” test too, a rare thing in an RPG. There are lots of photos from the series, some of which don’t seem to have converted very well to greyscale (only really noticeable on a few of the darker shots). There’s also plenty of illustrations. These fit the style of the series surprisingly well, reminding me somewhat of the comic strips in the old Red Dwarf Magazine. The best bits of layout work are the wonderfully produced adverts. Similar to those in the old Starwars and Cyberpunk games, these nicely add atmosphere to the book (the small print of the ouroborous Batteries advert is great).

Writing wise the book is a pleasant read. Some chapters are better than others, but generally the writers do a good job of making roleplaying rules interesting and conveying the humour of the setting. There are occasional hiccups (some pop-culture references you may not get, or lose something in the journey over the atlantic). But then most of this is a problem with any comedy writing, and doesn’t spoil the book. it’s obvious that the writers payed a lot of attention to how to run a game in a Red Dwarf like universe. Their conclusion (and the best one to make, as far as I can see) was that your game takes place in one of the many alternate universes of the setting, using your characters, and so you should focus on the core concept: Man is alone a godless universe. Hilarity ensues.

There’re a good introductory chapter answering the questions: “what is roleplaying?”, “what is Red Dwarf?”, and so on. Some nice colour text dragged form the series sets the tone well, and the writing style fills you with enthusiasm. There’s a glossary (useful so that you know the GM is called the AI etc), and for those of us who are used to RPGs, there’s a rules summary. It’s around this point I had some nagging doubts about the system, but more on that later. For newbies there’s an RPG primer in chapter 2, and it’s pretty good.

In chapter 3 we are given rules on how to create characters, starting with some advice on thinking about what you want to play, followed by a series of character types. Here we have a list of the main options for player characters, Humans, Holograms, Evolved Pets (cats, dogs, rabbits, mice and iguanas are given as examples), Mechanoids (Series 4000 or Hudzen 10), GELFs (Genetically Engineered Life forms), Wax Droids (Intelligent wax works) and Simulants (Psychotic military mechanoids). Each type gets a bonus special ability and a particular drawback, as well as particular limits on how high their stats can go.

The actual creation rules are short and summarised on a sidebar. Distribute 20 points between 6 stats and 30 points to skills. You get extra skill points for Liabilities, and you can also buy Assets for points. This is further developed in the next few chapters, which deal with character traits in detail. The six stats are straightforward enough, Agility, Dexterity, Perception, Strength, Intelligence, Willpower. These follow pretty standard RPG lines. The only oddity here is the agility / dexterity split, which seems somewhat stretched (one overall coordination stat might have worked just as well, it’s not like this split is obvious in the source material), and the fact that anything social is based off perception. From these stats, we get derived stats: Initiative, Save and Shrug. Both save and shrug, when introduced, seem to have a remarkably similar purpose (helping deal with damage). Finally, there is a stat called Destiny, everybody gets one point. This can be spent for a re-roll, if you do something heroic, you’ll get it back and an additional point. I’d have liked to see this stat expanded on. It’s one of the few stats that seems to really help with the Red Dwarf, “skin of their teeth”, feel. I’d like to have seen it’s definition expanded to give reward for comedy moments and keeping to the Red Dwarf feel, which I’ll certainly do when running it.

Skills are all attached to a particular attribute, they follow a pretty standard RPG list. Values of 1 in a skill are ranked “loser”, 4 “satisfactory”, and 7+ “What a guy!”. You can take a speciality that gives you +1 to a particular use and -1 to all other uses of the skill, some skills you also have to choose a category for (like Pilot: Transport). The skills are explained in an entertaining manner, and the list covers most of the things you’d expect to see in the RD universe.

The Assets, Liabilities and Behavioral tags follow a GURPS style “points for problems” system. It’s here that the system adds in some of the setting colour, and so you get liabilities like Smeghead (+3 points) and Gimboid (+2 points). Behavior tags only give you one point each, and are pretty minor quirks that add character colour. My only problem with this aspect of the system is that it’s entirely possible to ignore the liabilities completely. Since part of Red Dwarf’s charm is that everybody in the main cast is a loser of some kind, I’d have like to have seen some compulsory points of liabilities, or some such. Another problem is that by taking lots of liabilities, you get to be really skilled or buy lots of assets. This somehow doesn’t seem true to the setting, where people like Rimmer have many flaws, and no real skills or assets…

The system is pretty simple, you roll 2D6 and try to get under your stat + skill. If you roll snake eyes you get a critical success, if you roll boxcars you get a critical failure. All action results are narrated by the GM, who can give you modifiers for certain situations. Combat follows the 3 second rounds method (something abstract would work better for a comedy game, in my opinion, no time for cool quips if rounds are 3 seconds). Characters act in order of initiative. There’s rules for running, dodging, surprise, targeting areas of the body, damage, wounds, saves, and so on. Again, this is a standard RPG combat system, nothing special, but then nothing seems particularly broken either. My main dislike for the system is that it tries to simulate how the universe works, rather than how the show is written. But this is a personal preference, and probably won’t stop most people having fun with the game.

There’s an example of play in chapter 7. As an example it works. I suppose. It shows how the skills work, how the AI should do its job, and how players should react. It’s not very funny though, and doesn’t really inspire me to play the game. That’s a problem in any play example.

Practically everything that ever appeared in the Red Dwarf series is detailed in the Equipment and Ships chapters. From Starbug to Psiscan, it’s all here. Some nice flavour text, images, and the relevant stats and rules are provided for everything. There’s a deckplan of Starbug too. I’m somewhat dubious about lists of gun stats in a Red Dwarf game, they seem out of place somehow. The creatures chapter details all the critters you are likely to encounter. So if you fancy throwing a mutton vindaloo beast, polymorph, or space weevil at your group, then you have everything you need.

The worlds chapter is particularly well written (one of my favourites in the book). It describes most of the worlds visited in the series, but each has a “Worst case scenario” with it, which is ideal for coming up with scenarios to throw at your players. This is a nice touch, and I think the equipment and ships chapters could have benefited from taking a similar approach, as it gets you thinking about how you’re actually going to run the game.

Speaking of which, the AI section is well done, and covers handling players and such like, along with some sidebars on optional rules. There’s advice on playing the AI like Holly, dealing with causality, encouraging comedy, plus other issues of running a humorous game. There’s a tendency to go for the “GM is God” style of roleplaying here, which spoils the chapter slightly. But it’s not like this is a unique phenomena in RPGs.

The personalities chapter covers everybody you might want to meet from the series, from Rimmer to Nicey Ackerman, along with some generic stats for space corps officers, GELFs, and others. This is useful for providing instant non-player characters, but also for some insight into how to create characters. For example, the list of character traits for Lister match Rimmer’s intolerences, an ideal recipe for comedy.

Finally we get a scenario generator and a sample scenario. The scenarios generator is well thought out, and involves playing mix and match with the situations and personalities form the series. Plenty of ideas to be had here. The sample scenarios “The Red Dwarf Shuffle” should be fun to run, and has the feeling of the series about it. Without too many spoilers,it involves what could be termed “Extreme Golfing” on a GELF planet.

Overall: I have mixed feelings about Red Dwarf as a RPG. It’s well written and the setting information and game advice are comprehensive and entertaining. It has a good take on how to make roleplaying in the Red Dwarf universe possible, and good advice on how to go about it. It’s just that the rules are a little uninspiring. In the end though, the play’s the thing, and whatever system you use, the Red Dwarf universe is going to be a fun place to play.

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Interview : Red Dwarf – The Roleplaying Game

We talk to Todd Downing of Deep7 about their forthcoming game.

When we first heard about the Red Dwarf roleplaying game, we were surprised, and just a bit curious. So who better for the first of our interviews than the game’s creators. Armed with a selection of questions from fans, we tracked down Todd Downing of Deep7. Here’s what he had to say:

[Realms] First off, tell us a bit about yourself and Deep7.

[TD] I was born in a poor Welsh mining town – er, wait. Before Deep7, I’d done a fair bit of writing, art and design in computer games and indie comics, and had been designing RPGs since I first started playing them. Samantha, our Business Director (and the lovely lady I’m married to), had been an editor and run a couple small companies of her own. We started Deep7 in ’99 with a third partner, Ron Dugdale, with whom I’d run a game store previously. In the beginning, we were dedicated solely to virtual products, seeing a niche needing to be filled. In 2000, we released our first hardcopy product, Santa’s Soldiers. Last year we sold a line of CD-ROMs, and this year saw the release of our first substantial printed game, Arrowflight. Although it’s just Sam and I now (with a mighty army of freelancers and art friends I made in the video game industry), we are still following the same path we mapped out 3 years ago. Supporting the brick-and-mortar games market with good hardcopy products while making attractive and economical virtual products for the wired roleplayer.

[Realms] How did you go about securing the licence for such a cult television programme?

[TD] We asked. It was that simple, really. No one had bothered to try before us. I take notions of predeterminism with a grain of salt, but this was one of those “meant-to-be” things. As a fan of Red Dwarf since ’89, I’d always wanted to make an RPG in that setting, and almost 10 years after first discussing the concept with some of Arrowflight’s co-designers, here we are. We contacted Grant Naylor Productions, who very quickly referred us to IMC Licensing, who handles Red Dwarf in North America. It was relatively quick and painless, which I understand is not the case with many licenses. It’s probably spoiled us now.

[Realms] Working with licensed products can sometimes be constraining, how much free reign did you have with the project?

[TD] As with any license (especially when you’re making one into an RPG), there is a certain learning curve on both sides. We had to make sure they understood that we wouldn’t be mucking about with the canon of the show. As with any license, there were certain restrictions on content (NO ALIENS, for example), but we’ve actually been granted unprecedented creative freedom with our product, in terms of original artwork, new character types and ship blueprints, etc. Of course, we treat the canon with all due respect. Everything we added for game purposes has its roots in the show. We just push out and explore a bit of the less-developed areas of the ‘Dwarf universe.

[Realms] Tell us a bit about the system, how did you go about designing it?

[TD] That’s actually answered in one of the book’s two appendices (and you’re a true ‘Dwarfer if you get the reference), but I can say that it was designed as the backbone to nearly every Deep7 property thus far. The XPG system is a very simple one to grasp, and very cinematic. Our economy 1PG line strips the system down to so-simple-you-can-play-with-a-gaping-head-wound proportions, while the DEEP system utilized by Arrowflight adds layers of depth. XPG is the cornerstone of both variant systems, and seemed a perfect choice for both ease of play and character depth. Probably the best thing about it is its flexibility. As designers, we can make changes and tweaks and not have it collapse on us. As players and gamemasters, you can do your own tweaking and still not break its functionality. It facilitates a wide range of cinematic styles, from the classic film noir of Mean Streets to the swashbuckling adventure of the upcoming Bloode Island XPG, to (as we have discovered) comedy like Red Dwarf.

[Realms] Which design decisions did you have the most problems with?

[TD] How to make it funny. Because if it ain’t funny, what’s the point? Fortunately, the book is really aimed at fans of the show, and it includes a pretty basic primer on roleplaying, roleplaying comedy, and roleplaying comedy in the Red Dwarf universe. It also brings the gamemaster into the game as the ship’s AI, with notes on how to run a game in character and how to make it funny. As it turns out, given the raw material of the show, it wasn’t the Herculean task we thought it would be. But the fans will be the final judges on how well we pulled it off. For what it’s worth, the folks at Grant Naylor Productions are very happy with the material.

[Realms] What do you consider to be the core points of the show, and how have they translated it into the game? What makes it, not just another space game?

[TD] The same thing that makes Red Dwarf not just another space show. The characters, their interactions, the situations they find themselves in. Name another sci-fi series that portrays a ship captain traumatized by a T-Rex with diarrhoea, or that accidentally screws up the JFK assassination timeline because someone wants a curry. Once we distilled the basic essence of the show, it made the translation to adventure game with very little trouble. The fact that you can have a delusional hologram in a group with an evolved lab rat, or an entire ship crewed by wax droids of Winnie the Pooh characters being chased by ravenous spaghetti monsters says this is not your usual sci-fi game. The fact that you can play wax droid Winnie the Pooh characters in a western gunslinger AR scenario makes it even more unique.

[Realms] What’s sort of options are there during character creation? All the characters in Red Dwarf are in some way deeply flawed, how have you covered this?

[TD] We address the flawed character themes very strongly and early on. We’ve included an entire personality section, where players can choose among Assets, Liabilities and Behavior Tags to make their character as flawed and silly as they desire. There are even ways to become more flawed as the game progresses, through insanity, disease and other trauma. It’s really quite fun!

[Realms] Is control of the game very focused on the GM, or will the system feature some player authorial control?

[TD] Well, it certainly falls to the AI to maintain order and convey the specifics of the game, however it is hoped that our presentation will inspire more initiative among players. Ideally, it should run like an episode of Red Dwarf, perhaps with a more epic feel (and certainly not limited to a 30-minute timeslot).

[Realms] Red Dwarf is a comedy, how have you captured that in the game? Comedy is difficult to write, let alone improvise, how will the rules encourage it?

[TD] The rules are written pretty much in the style of the show. You’re right – it’s very difficult to write comedy, but we had a good crop of writers, most of whom were ‘Dwarf fans already. I’d already written comedy for stage, film, animation and comics, so it came pretty naturally. Again, once you really distill the series down to where you can recognize the formula, it becomes easier to write in that style and thus convey the right tone for the game. In terms of rules, ‘Dwarf-isms pop up everywhere. The wound levels range from “A Bit Wonky” to “Smoldering Hole”. You can take “Smeghead” as a Liability (which is, appropriately, the next step up from “Gimboid”). We did everything we could to really evoke the setting and the inherent humor of it. Even down to full-page color ads for Diva-Droid, Ouroboros Batteries and the Space Corps.

[Realms] Red Dwarf has a legion of fans. How worried are you about their reaction?

[TD] As members of that mighty legion (or as Rimmer would say, le jon?), we made the game we, as fans, wanted to play. I’m confident that the majority of ‘Dwarf fans will “get” it, and probably like what we did with it. One of the first weird comments we heard was that one fan wanted to get it so he could convert it to another popular, more technical system, sight unseen (which is kind of missing the point, isn’t it?). The feedback from our international playtest was overwhelmingly positive, even from the German and Brazilian groups, who don’t get much (if any) Red Dwarf. And based on what we’ve posted on the Deep7 website, we’re hearing from excited fans every day. The queue is forming…

[Realms] One of the great things about Red Dwarf is it’s ability to mix humour with some complex issues. Episodes like Meltdown deal with much more than “laugh at the losers lost in space”, how will the game deal with, or encourage, this kind of story?

[TD] This is really at the discretion of the group in question. We can’t really mandate things like “be sure your adventure includes a healthy dose of social conscience”. But so much of Red Dwarf has that anyway, even in episodes you wouldn’t normally think did. Look at Camille, Waiting for God, Timeslides, and the Last Day, just for starters. It’s kind of fundamental to the vibe of the show, and it’s a factor in the book, albeit not overtly.

[Realms] Will you have extensive curry rules?

[TD] Curry is definitely a factor. We have stats for the Vindaloo Beast. Of course, you can take the Cooking skill and specialize in Curry. You can wear week-old curry as body armour (if your shipmates don’t push you out the airlock). You can turn your friends into it (if you encounter a DNA Modifier). Curry is a catalyst in the Red Dwarf Scenario Generator (included in the book). You can also choose to alter your own group’s universe so that some other spicy food takes the place of curry in the show. Like Mexican? Thai? It’s all possible.

[Realms] Which RPGs do you enjoy, and which have influenced you when writing this one?

[TD] My personal all-time faves are Cyberpunk 2020, Star Wars (the West End version) and Deadlands. All three really conveyed a rich setting and had easy-to-learn, cinematic systems. For comedy specific RPGs, I’ve always liked Toon, Teenagers From Outer Space, Paranoia and the occasional gem of hilarity like Ninja Burger. Bill Smith, who was behind a lot of West End’s Star Wars stuff in the ’90s, was a great mentor to us, and Red Dwarf is probably closest to that version of Star Wars in terms of presentation.

[Realms] Will there be character advancement, and if so, how are you handling it?

[TD] Yes, there is character advancement. XPG doesn’t have “levels” like some other games. It’s skill-based character improvement. Players gain Character Points at the end of each adventure, which can then be pumped back into individual skills.

[Realms] Are Red Dwarf games intended to be set on the Jupiter Mining Corporation vessel Red Dwarf? If not, what other options available for GMs?

[TD] Again, it depends on what kind of alternate universe you are setting up. We have stats for the JMC Red Dwarf, but nothing’s stopping you from playing on the JMC Oregon or the SSS Esperanto or the SSS Ozzy Osbourne. Just like it’s up to you whether to set your timeline pre-continuity (only humans and mechanoids) or post-continuity (very few humans, evolved cats, dogs or non-canon pets like rabbits and iguanas). By the same token, your character can be the exact character from the show, a variant of that character, or a completely new one. You could be playing in the universe where Sheila Krebbs was locked in stasis and revived three million years later with a Hudzen 10 mech, an evolved lab rat and a re-programmed simulant. Along the way they may save an injured Kinitawowi warrior who tags along to fulfill some sort of tribal life-debt. Or perhaps they happen across a lost colony of pleasure GELFs or a holo-world where hard-light holograms fight to the death in a primitive arena. As long as the AI gives them plenty of opportunity to cock it up, it’s all good.

[Realms] Do you want some toast? How about a muffin?

[TD] Ask me a question that is wholly un-bready and not even slightly curranty.

[Realms] What have you got planned for the future of the game?

[TD] Well, the AI Screen will be shipping shortly after the basic game. After that, we have some options, but it will likely be next spring before any see print. It is our hope to release a movie sourcebook timed with the release of theRed Dwarf feature film.

[Realms] What has been your favourite role-playing experience, as a player or GM?

[TD] Must’ve been when I was playing a halfling charged with a quest to destroy a magic ring in the fires of Mt. Doom… oh wait. That wasn’t me. Um, there was that time when – you know – with the thing, and the treasure, and the monster, and the elf hookers. Ahhh. Good times. Seriously, when you’ve been gaming for 20-some years, it’s hard to pick one moment. There are a ton of “no sh**, there I was” stories no one particularly wants to hear.

[Realms] What do you think about the recent explosion of third party D20 products, and its effect on the games industry?

[TD] While we don’t make d20 products (for a variety of reasons I won’t go into here), I must say, I love the fact that it exists. It made possible a bandwagon of products that eventually created a market glut. And the best thing about a market glut is that it makes other products – products that don’t follow the leader – stand out all the more. Part of Arrowflight’s success has been the fact that it wasn’t d20. And since we’re in it for the long haul, we’re more concerned with strong long-term sales than with huge sales for three months before falling flat.

[Realms] How much of the artwork will actually be artwork, and how much will be photographic in nature? Who (if anyone) is doing the art for the product?

[TD] Being a licensee has its perks, definitely. I will admit we availed ourselves of the Grant Naylor photo archives. The majority of the illustrations are photographic, including promo shots and screen captures from the show. However we have some wonderful full color character illustrations by Steve Hartley, a concept piece by Mike Tucker of the BBC effects department, and a 3D deck plan of Starbug by Julian De Puma. I did the interior border and cover designs, and the fake “ads”.

[Realms] How much input have you had from the cast or Grant Naylor?

[TD] In terms of content, they’ve been very happy and the list of changes has been pretty minor. We get a lot of immediate input from Andrew Ellard, who is the official Red Dwarf website coordinator (and who is writing all the liner notes for the upcoming DVDs). We also got the most awesome back cover quote from Robert “Kryten” Llewellyn.

[Realms] Which is your favourite character from the playtesting?

[TD] You know, the single biggest success from playtesting was the realization of how much wax droids open up one’s imagination. My brother Gavin (who also worked on the game) and I included them almost as an afterthought. Throughout the playtests we were treated to stories of a wax droid Captain Morgan, Christopher Walken, Niles Crane (from Frasier) and Ozzy Osbourne. And then there’s that whole Winnie the Pooh thing, which was so wrong on so many levels, and yet so very ‘Dwarf. Of course, to balance out the cool you-can-be-anyone advantage, there’s that pesky little melting problem

[Realms]Thanks to Todd for taking the time to answer our questions.

Red Dwarf – The Roleplaying Game is set to be released in October 2002. Price will be $34.95 (about £25). For which you’ll get an 172 page hardcover rulebook, 2-colour interior with 18 full-colour pages. More information is available at the Deep7 website.

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